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Sulaima Ishaq El-Khalifa: "women's participation in peace processes makes states fairer"

The director of the centre against gender-based violence in Sudan stresses the need for democratic systems to include women and listen to their demands
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Sudan is once again on the international front page of most of the media. Last week, a new coup d'état led by al-Burham shook the country's democratic designs to create a peaceful and secure state. In this situation, violence and chaos once again gripped Sudan, plunging its population into a new confrontation with the military.

However, in this context, there has been no consideration of what a return to a dictatorial system might mean for women and girls. They have borne the brunt of the violence and repression. During the Transitional government they managed to win important gender rights, although they were still far from full equality, but now, with the new coup d'état, women's rights are in serious danger. 

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The head of the Government of Sudan's Gender Based Violence Unit, Sulaima Ishaq El-Khalifa, has succeeded in getting the country's institutions to listen to the demands made since its founding and provide women with safe and inclusive spaces. As soon as she enters the room, El-Khalifa leaves behind her a trail of courage and confidence. She looks at me with complicity and answers all my questions with firmness and conviction under a smile that exudes kindness.

  What is the situation of women in Sudan today?

Right now, all the dreams of improving the situation of women in Sudan, the road to gender equality has stopped. It is like a clock that has frozen. Now the situation is very volatile especially for women and girls. They are being beaten in the streets, they are imposing violence on protesters... we are going back to the dark days even much darker because now it is the militiamen who are beating and killing people. It is a much more volatile situation not only in Khartoum but in other states as well because women and girls are leading major resistance groups.

These people are missing the point. They are arresting resistance groups because our presence in the protests and on the streets bothers them. This is something we always do. During the revolution there was a lot of violence, a lot of people went out on the streets and now the presence is much higher. It is our reaction when there is violence in the state. We have broken the fear barrier, we are not afraid of weapons. The people's movement is a peaceful movement. People are working much more to work together. There is no more fear

In Sudan there are still horrible practices such as circumcision and forced marriages, how do you help from the centre you run to end this?

All the things we have gained during the transition period have been stopped. We want to change things, during the democratic transition we were able to find organisations, we signed many of the agreements related to women's safety in institutions. In terms of gender, we have achieved laws and norms to prevent sexual violence against women during conflicts. We achieved the first national law banning female mutilation, ushering in a new era for our rights.

All the rights we have achieved have been achieved because there is a political will in our environment where we can change women's lives. At least we have managed to create women-only spaces, political and social spaces, and public spaces for women to participate more.

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Everything we have achieved is in danger. If the military goes ahead with the coup d'état we women will have to take many steps backwards. It will be a more dictatorial era and nobody wants to support it. During the transitional government we did not achieve all the things we wanted, but we were able to find women's associations and foundations and to gain rights that we had been denied.

Now, with the coup d'état in Sudan, do you think the situation for women has worsened?

We have already entered the blacklist of countries that are not safe for women. It is now among the least committed to women's rights and against male and sexual violence. We are already there. We women are trying to get Sudan off these lists, we are trying to change the institutions.

If this doesn't change the situation will get worse because every minute that goes by the situation keeps getting worse.

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Now al-Burhan has approached Hamdok and proposed him to continue as a candidate for the presidency, do you think this is a strategy within a political plan?

Hamdok will not lead a new civilian government if it is imposed by the coup. He does not approve of it and does not support it, he does not even accept it. Hamdok has been very clear, he wants to return to a civilian government that is not under the order of the military. The security council has already pronounced itself on this and has said the same as the prime minister.

The military who are leading the coup for us are traitors to the country, to the people, to the revolution, to everything. Everything we have worked for in order to achieve peace and justice. They have betrayed all this to achieve their own power and desires. This conflict is a big conflict with the demands of the Sudanese people.

Do you think Abdullah Hamdok is a political figure who can influence the fight against gender-based violence?

Yes, he is committed. He has a very broad way of looking at things and he is also understanding the importance of gender equality. He has a great commitment to this cause. He stood up to protect and defend women's rights, at least to lay the foundation. It would help us as we move into the democratic transition.

One of the political problems in Sudan is that women are not part of the negotiation processes, when do you think women will be able to lead peace processes and be active in the institutions?

The current situation is very negative, but it has been a wake-up call. Women are working for peace. In our movement, politician Irina supports women's participation in institutions and is opening an important path for young women. The current moment is bad, but the lessons learned from this experience are enormous and will make things change faster.

In the last 30 years the army has not fought outside the country, it has fought against its own people. The army as an institution does not want this to return, but al Burham is trying to make alliances with militia groups. He feels he can have power. At the moment we have five armies, they are not unified, they don't have the same training methods, they don't even have the same capacity. People don't trust them and that's why I tend to trust rulers and civilian leaders who don't feel they need the backing of the army. They don't want women to move forward and be part of politics.  They don't want to be in the security council reforms because they will lose a lot of their power. That power should go to civilians.

Sudan is now facing a new political landscape full of uncertainties, where are women in this new situation?

Women are now leading part of the revolutionary movements, especially young women. The women's movement will be much stronger, we will learn from our mistakes, we will be more united. It is our time to be stronger, much more united through a sisterhood that will inspire not only Sudanese women but women all over the world.

What do you think a woman can contribute to a peace process that a man cannot contribute?

Women understand, we are empathetic. Men never mention violence against women, sexual violence in conflicts like Darfur was never mentioned by any man. In Darfur there was a negotiation process for the people of Darfur themselves, but they forget about women.

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 Women's bodies have been used as a tool of war. The women who have survived this kind of violence deserve compensation and the men have not mentioned anything to fight against this. When there are strong women in negotiation processes, they make sure that women and children are included. They don't just think about themselves, they think about everybody, the whole community. When you do things for women then you are doing things equally for men, policy reform and the legal framework will be equally beneficial for women and men as equals.

Women never see the other as a threat, men, for example, when they see women fighting for equality, they fear losing their benefits, but women don't think like that. They think about creating benefits for everyone. They know that when women are strong the community will be strong. If we are equal and divide services and opportunities, men will have equal participation and opportunities.

For example, the contribution of women in the Sudanese economy is huge, like 70%. In this situation you find that these women, who have a huge contribution to the economy, can die when they give birth to their children, so we underline the need for equal opportunities, equality from local government to the highest levels of government.

We need women in governments and governing and we need women's voices to be heard.  Women are the only example of resilience, they manage to resist in spite of violence, in spite of conflict, in spite of poverty, in spite of all the inequality.