People first

Zainab Osman in South Sudan

Updated: 5 June 2015

It was a great feeling and very emotional for me, because women in our country have not previously been allowed to vote. So says Zainab on the referendum held in early 2011 with support from Sida.

On 9 January 2011, the world's gaze turned to Sudan. The power laid in the hands of 3.2 million people eager to participate in the Referendum on independence for South Sudan. One of these people was Zainab Osman, who voted for the first time in her life.

 "I felt that for the first time I could participate in and contribute to the involvement of my people," explains Zainab.

In previous elections, only a small number of people in Southern Sudan were allowed to vote, and among these no women. It was something of a taboo for woman to be involved in decision making, let alone politics. 

 "To all of a sudden be able to take part was a wonderful feeling and very emotional for me, as women were not previously allowed to vote in our country."

But during the preliminary registration, few women came forward as it turned out. Zainab got involved in convincing them of the importance of showing up. She took a course on the election process; a course for citizens which was supported by Sweden. From the course, the people learned that in order to vote, they must first go and register themselves, and that this registration takes place during a set time period. They also learned the importance of checking that their name has in fact been registered; things which they were not previously aware of.

 "The Government and international NGOs couldn't reach everyone. So we had to get involved in reaching people at grass-roots level. We organized ourselves and began educating citizens ourselves," Zainab explains.

Zainab wanted to be the first to cast her vote.

 "I woke up early," she says, "but when I arrived at the voting station at around three in the morning, there were crowds of people who had been there since midnight."

And when Zainab turned up, there was an unpleasant surprise waiting for her.

 "When I arrived, my name wasn't even in the register! As luck would have it, I had brought with me a little card that I received when I registered, so I complained and then I got to vote."

In 2005, when Northern and Southern Sudan signed the peace agreement, it was agreed that the people of the south would decide on whether they would continue to be a part of Sudan as a single nation or become an independent state through a referendum.

Due to the great differences between the north and the south in terms of lifestyle, beliefs and norms, many people in Southern Sudan had already made their minds up long before the 2011 election.

 "Of course I knew what I was going to vote for," says Zainab. "And when we went out into the villages they told us that if we had come to preach about unity, we had come to the wrong place."

The referendum aroused strong feelings.

 "I saw a very old woman who came to vote," Zainab tells us. "She crossed herself and said that even if she died today, her dreams had come true. I was really moved".

A lot was at stake, and everyone was eagerly awaiting the results afterwards. As many had wished for, more than 99 per cent of the people in Southern Sudan voted for separation. But Zainab Osman does not think that independence is the only solution for women in Southern Sudan, who have been kept from political life for a long time.

 "My appeal to the women in Southern Sudan is to get involved more. We make up around 60 per cent of the total population. I appeal to them to participate in politics, because when women get involved in politics, the country becomes a better place."


Page owner: Communication Unit

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