Literacy and Democratic Engagement
Above, training in human rights for our literacy facilitators, given by REFLECT literacy expert, Dr. Leila Bashir.
Title photo, one of our literacy participants leading a discussion with her literacy circle partners. Many of our literacy graduates tell us that they had never spoken in public before attending the program. Gaining self-confidence is a key motivator for women attending literacy circles, many of whom wish to play more active roles in their communities. Civic engagement is central to our literacy program.
See more in voices.
Within Sudan’s transitional government, two of the eleven seats of the Sovereign Council of Sudan are held by women – Raja Nicola Adbul-Masseh and Ayesha Musa Saeed who are the first two women in Sudanese history to hold head of State positions. Underneath this council, there is a cabinet of eighteen ministers, four of which are female. Asma Mohamed Abdalla –Sudan’s first female Foreign minister– as the Minister of Foreign affairs; Wala’a Essam al-Boushi, the Minister of Youth and Sport; Intisar el Zein Soughayroun, Minister for Higher Education; and Lena el-Sheikh Mahjoub, Minister of Labor (or Welfare) and Social Development.
A New Dawn; Continuity and Change
How Literacy Builds Democratic Engagement
Setting the Scene
Above, everyone’s opinion matters in our literacy circles.
“This is a time for change,” says Nema Fadul Dawood, an aspiring council representative and women’s rights activist in East Darfur, “and we the women of Sudan need to seize this opportunity following years of societal and cultural restrictions.” Commenting on the ambitious 40% female quota in government and increased women’s political engagement in time for the 2022 elections”
“An early 2020 UNDP exercise aimed to promote political participation and identify and train possible candidates. Visiting 110 cities, villages and internally displaced person camps over six weeks, 11 teams from the Women of Sudanese Civic and Political Groups, and the Sudanese Organization for Research and Development , identified 1,070 women, two-thirds under the age of 40, willing to represent their communities.”
Above, a literacy participant leads a session.
“Even during this COVID-19 crisis, women have proven to be more responsible than men in adhering to the restrictions,” says Roaa. “This is how we always have been; we do things the hard way. Sudanese women must first believe in themselves and in each other, and do their best to support each other, and continue thinking outside of the box.
The Feminist Manifesto was presented to the Ministry of Justice on Thursday April 8, 2021. It represents the aspirations of some of the women’s rights groups participating in the Women’s march. The Feminist Manifesto is the outcome of two years of extensive work done by SIHA organization, in the form of consultations with more than 250 women from different grassroots movements and regions in Sudan, who carried with them the characteristics of diversity that Sudan possesses.
Barriers to women’s participation in politics. (source as above)
“Women led resistance committees and sit-ins, planned protest routes and disobeyed curfews, even in the midst of a declared state of emergency that left them vulnerable to security forces. Many were teargassed, threatened, assaulted and thrown in jail without any charge or due process. However, despite this visible role, despite their courage and their leadership, women have been side-lined in the formal political process in the months following the revolution.”
Alaa Salah, addressing UN Security Council meeting.
Above, all participants have an equal voice in their literacy circles.
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A New Dawn; Continuity and Change in Post-Revolution Sudan
The 2013 UN Development Program ranked Sudan 129th out of 149 countries on their gender inequality index. The index is a product of statistical data on maternal mortality, adolescent fertility rates, women in national parliament, the percentage of women with a secondary+ level of education and workforce participation rates.
The official statistics remain grim and while Sudan’s transitional government is striving rapidly to expand the opportunities open to women – a commitment reflected in the appointment of several high level women ministers and legislation repealing laws held by many to be detrimental to women’s interests – many obstacles to women’s greater engagement in grassroots, regional and national civic and political life remain, not least high illiteracy and low income levels among women. Lack of the social capital and economic resources, self-confidence and the training needed to participate in local and regional political campaigns are compounded by profound differences in perceptions of the nature and acceptability of public engagement among Sudanese women themselves, coupled with the legacies of marginalization and long-standing centre versus periphery tensions.
Yet Sudanese women have a long history of community and political engagement often overlooked in official overviews. An engagement so courageously and effectively expressed in the events of the past three years. Since colonial times, informal networks, more formally constituted neighborhood committees, religious bodies, workers’ unions; trade and professional associations attended or initiated by women have campaigned for community improvements, local and broader political change, and taken on decision-making roles. See Sondra Hale and Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban amongst others on the differing and overlapping complex legacies of Islamist and non-Islamist women’s movements in political and social change in Sudan.
How Literacy Builds Democratic Engagement
The REFLECT literacy approach requires participants to consider critically how gender, class, race, physical or intellectual ability, status, language influence understandings of power, individual and community agency. Central, too, is providing tools for respectful debate and conflict resolution.
Our literacy program provides democratic spaces where everyone’s voice has equal weight. This is incredibly important as our participants come from some of the most marginalized communities in Sudan. Communities, such as the internally displaced, whose voice has so often been lacking in health, welfare and economic fora.
Women explore and discuss their views on the complex social, educational and economic realities they face. As part of the program, they analyze how their communities function, where and how decisions are made that affect their lives and how they can more effectively access local services. This is often done by generating diagrams of informal social structures, local organizations, mobility and migration maps, maps of local resources and services, collective research on issues facing their communities such as crime, sanitation, educational and health needs. However, it doesn’t stop there. Participants are then asked to consider how to evaluate their local organizations, how to engage with them both face-to-face and in writing, how to hold them accountable and how to formulate strategies for meeting their communities’ needs themselves and in cooperation with others.
Our literacy graduates are also equipped with knowledge of local government structures, how the Sudanese democratic process works and how voting and elections are conducted. They learn who represents their communities, and how to engage with them on issues of concern to them. They initiate community projects during and after completing their literacy course – often to improve local health and sanitation, access to vital services and education.
We see our literacy work as a very small step on the path to achieving both UNDP and UNDEP goals on increased women’s participation in civic and political life in Sudan. Women who are literate are far more likely to have the self-confidence they need to go out and participate in community organizations and networks that can bring about the changes they want to see for their communities. Our work has become even more vital as Sudan seeks to forge a new, more inclusive future.
Below, Key Sources on Gender in Sudan