With the New Year, we may see a new country born through a referendum that will be held this weekend in Sudan. Today I'd like to share a word from Karak Mayik, my sister who heads Women for Women International's Sudan program and is everyday a hero striving for peace and prosperity in her homeland.
The New Year is a time of new beginnings, a time for making resolutions. This year, I hope you will resolve to stand with the women of South Sudan as we move to peacefully define a new beginning for ourselves in a land that has known nothing but violence, displacement and loss of lives for 40 years. On January 9th, we citizens of South Sudan will determine our own destiny not through guns and fighting, but through a peaceful and democratic process: a vote.
For the first time, my sisters and I will choose for ourselves what will be the future for South Sudan. We women did not bring the war to our villages. We did not ask for the famine that came to our fields. Yet, every day we strive for peace one harvest at a time. The women in sub-Saharan Africa walk each day to the fields to sow the seeds of hope for the next generation. We walk close to 40 billion hours a year collecting water -- equivalent to a year's worth of labor by the entire workforce in France. Despite insecurity and extreme conditions, we are determined to feed our families even though 31% of our children under the age of five are underweight and 20% of all Sudanese are undernourished. Our challenges are many -- 88 percent of women in the southern part of my country are illiterate and a majority of the young women we provide rights and vocational training are married at a very young age. In spite of all these challenges, we the women of Sudan will persevere.
The strength of our women is the untold story of Sudan. Every day we are doing our best to help our families and communities survive and build a stable future. When there is fighting -- and despite a Comprehensive Peace Agreement, we have seen violence steadily increasing these past two years -- we run from our homes, we are displaced from our villages, we are targeted for violence because we are women, but still we survive and we look to this vote as a symbol of a new beginning, of peace. Last year, when fighting erupted near the farmland which Women for Women International administers, we women took in 600 displaced people, providing them with food and clothing from whoever had any to spare. Women make a way out of no-way. The Governor of Lakes State has called me "The Commander of Nonviolent Forces," recognizing that although the men are waging war, we women are waging peace and stability in the name of a future we still believe in.
Although we women are strong, we cannot alone bring peace to our fragile country. We need the strong support of the international community as we move forward. Although we are uniquely targeted for violence, there has been little discussion about the importance of preventing a resumption of violence against women. The steps being taken to prepare contingency plans in the event this kind of violence breaks out are too few. Although women have been in front and center in campaigns about our sisters in West Darfur, no one is remembering the women of South Sudan at this critical time.
We urgently need strong support. At the Naivasha and Machakos talks leading to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, women were excluded from the negotiation table. Learning from their fellow southern sisters, women delegates from Darfur, who were only supposed to be there as observers, campaigned tirelessly in the Abuja talks to make sure that gender considerations were included in the discussions.
Recently, over 50 women were arrested for protesting the inhumane flogging of a woman by members of the Sudanese security force. Allegedly, the woman was being punished for dressing inappropriately. As I reflect on the arrest of my Sudanese sisters, I am filled with pride that they were not afraid to stand for justice. They are making history. I am reminded of what one of my peers said during one of the African women's conferences. She said: "African Women will change the face of the continent," because violence and brutality can not quash their strength and resilience to step up and speak for their people. My Sudanese sisters have the ability to change the face of Sudan. I know we still have a long way to go, but this is the only path to attain human dignity, equal rights and justice for all in Sudan. History will judge us for our actions.
Let us not allow the absence of women from peace processes to recur. We demand full participation in the debates about our future and the safety to fully participate in January 9th's referendum. We are half the population, responsible for half the peace. We call for increased efforts to prevent a return to violence, and we denounce sexual and gender-based violence as a strategy to terrorize families and communities. The international community must stand by the women of South Sudan: protect women, prevent a return to war.
Stand with us when we stand for peace this January. We are strong, but we cannot do it alone. It is time for a new beginning in South Sudan, and it cannot be achieved without the 3 Ps for women -- Prevention, Protection and Participation. Prevent a return to war. Protect women from violence. Enable women to participate in the decisions and processes that will define their future and may define a new country in the heart of Africa. The women of South Sudan will show you that when we are free from violence and able to participate in the decisions that effect us -- as the referendum in January most certainly will--we are the commanders of nonviolent forces that will usher in a new era of peace and stability at last in a land that sorely needs it.
Watch a video of Karak Mayik's live interview reflecting on what the referendum means for South Sudan, women and the world here.