Interview with SPLM Women's Commissioner Kezia Layinwa Nicodemus

11 March (IRIN)

Kezia Layinwa Nicodemus has been a Commissioner for Women, Gender and Child Welfare with the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) in southern Sudan since 2000. She is the only female senior member of the SPLM leadership, which is engaged in peace talks with the Sudanese government and will be joining a transitional government once a peace agreement is signed. In an interview with IRIN, she appealed to the international community to specifically target and support girls' and women's development and education in Sudan, where, she said, discriminatory attitudes - including among the SPLM leadership - were taken for granted.

QUESTION: How would you describe women's position in Sudanese society?

ANSWER: Women's position in Sudanese society is not very good, because women have not been taken on board when men are making decisions. So women are sort of left behind. But with this secretariat for women [which Kezia is head of], we are trying to bring up women so that they develop quickly and are on the same footing as men.

Q: Some people say women are treated as second-class citizens in Sudan. Do you agree?

A: We cannot say exactly that they are treated as second-class people, but their issues have not been taken seriously. In public, even if a woman has got brilliant ideas, it is not accepted as such. If her idea is accepted, her husband will try to turn it into his idea, not mentioning the woman. But this is not deliberately done. It is because of ignorance and the traditions of our people. Negative traditional attitudes towards women have always existed.

Q: How can women's and girls' positions in Sudanese society be enhanced? What measures need to be taken?

A: The secretariat wants to work on education and training and to enlighten women and parents. If mothers are educated on the advantages of girls' education, then they can advise their girls to go to school and remain there. If they remain as they are now, without appreciating the advantages [of education], they will bring their girls home from school and the fathers will give them to old men who have got a lot of money or cows.

There is a law in the SPLM that girls must be enrolled in schools in large numbers. But it is not true that girls meet those numbers. In primary one age seven - out of 40 children you might have 20 girls, but by primary eight there will only be two girls. When they come to the age of 12 or 15 they all drop out, while most of the boys continue.

Q: Who is to blame for girls not going to school?

A: Firstly the war is to blame, secondly the parents, but mostly the fathers. A woman's voice cannot be heard, so [when] a father decides when his girls are to marry so he can get riches and cows, the mother keeps quiet, because traditionally mothers should not say anything. When we go around with our workshops we find that mothers very much want their girls to go to school, but because they fear being inferior to the father, what can they say? And they don't have money to pay for it.

In some areas girls get married at 14, in some areas 12, in others they can be given to husbands at the age of 10. The 10-year-olds go there, they stay with the mothers of their husbands until they become a bit mature at 12. Some give birth when they are 12. The husbands wait [until menstruation starts] knowing that the girl is theirs. They start sexual relations at the age of twelve. They expect the girls to have a baby during the first year of marriage.

Q: Some observers say the SPLM has taken an approach of 'peace first, rights later'. Are women's rights a priority?

A: Peace first, that is true. Then human rights, then children's' rights, then women's rights last. Because peace is for everybody, human rights are for everybody, children's rights are for everybody, but our men think that if we give rights to women to be free, then they will come out of the kitchen - and who will be in the kitchen then?

They are scared of giving rights to women. They say too many rights are not good for women. So we need this to be improved so that men and women come together and they listen to new ideas, so that men can accept that they are human beings and their wives are also human beings. She has her rights, I have my rights. At the moment, very few men get that.

Q: How do you change the way a whole population thinks?

A: It can be changed through education for everyone, but mostly women. Men got education before women, they have gone far ahead, but this education of theirs does not consider the rights of a woman. So it is women now who have to be educated so they can explain their rights.

Q: What is your commission doing to improve women's lot?

A: We are mobilising and sensitising women throughout the new Sudan. We try to bring the ladies up so their voices can be heard. We have set the structures from my office here [Nairobi] in each region, county, payam and boma [administrative units]. We have our directors of each region and chairladies in each place. When something comes up, we communicate with them and they implement it on the ground.

For example, during the time of enrolment in schools, women in the regions and counties where the schools are have to make sure the teachers enrol girls. That message goes through the structure and they carry it out.

Q: Are there any women participating in the peace talks in Naivasha, Kenya?

A: I know two women who have just been involved recently. When they [the leadership] hear the international community making a noise about women, they bring two or three, and then after some few days they dismiss them. This participation is not at the negotiating table, the women are in the committees behind the scenes.

Q: Apart from you are there any women with key positions in the SPLM?

A: In the SPLM hierarchy there is only me. Even if I have a good idea, who will support me? All men will be against that idea. So I hope that in the near future we will get more women. I am not supported very much. It is still difficult for women, because you can be appointed but you are not assisted financially. Then you have no power.

Q: Why were you appointed then?

A: Dr [John] Garang is somebody who has seen the world. He knows that without women you cannot develop. I know from him, he really means to bring up women, but then the system does not work like that. It [the women's secretariat] is a token for the international community to see that we also involve women, but it is not true. Garang is with us, but those who are working on assisting the secretariat are not assisting us.

Q: Is your commission supported?

A: My commission has never been given money. Zero. I don't go asking but I see the other commissions flourishing, so I don't know how they get their money. But nothing has been given to this commission. That is why I find it difficult even to staff my office.

Q: Are you paid a salary?

A: No. The other commissioners, I think they get their salaries, I don't know. I see them flourishing. They have what I don't have - for example cars, good accommodation, what people need. I see them with it. I am really struggling. Last time my landlord had to chase me away with my children. I had to ask some of my children who are overseas to help me. They are the ones supporting me.

Q: What will peace mean for Sudanese women? How will it improve their lives?

A: Women are the producers of food, and when there is war they are moved from one place to another. And then they can't sell. When there will be peace, women will produce a lot, then they will sell. Men will take the money they get, but maybe some clever ones will keep it for themselves... More women and girls will also go to school, because they will be in one place.

Q: How can the international community help to enhance females' position, if the SPLM is not supporting you?

A: They can help us by giving us assistance. The women's commission has to be improved or empowered to empower women. Assistance and personnel must come through the women's secretariat. If it goes to another secretariat, then this assistance will not reach women. We are responsible for all women in the five regions. If they [donors] want to follow up they can come straight to this department and we can take them to the ground to see.

You know, we have two enemies we are fighting - the Arabs, and men. For men to accept that it is really true that a woman is their partner and that she is a human being is still a bit far for three-quarters of men in Sudan.

Our women and girls in the Sudan have not even reached a bit of development. If there is assistance for women and it comes through the secretariat, we will make women on the ground catch up quickly. My work will always be towards the improvement of women. But other secretariats - for them the issue of women is minor.