Sudanese women lead drive for change

Alaa Salah never expected to become the face of the Sudanese protest movement. Yet, that is exactly what happened when she took to the streets to protest the declining economic state of her country on 8 April 2019.

By the time the President of Sudan was arrested, a photo of Alaa had gone viral. The photo showed Alaa standing on top of a car, dressed in white and leading the crowd in a chant.

The image became an iconic reflection of the women acting as a driving force behind the movement.

‘I was so surprised about that image,’ Salah said to UN Women. ‘Ever since the start of the revolution, I’d been going on the streets and singing. I didn’t know that day would be any different.’

Since that day, Alaa has become even more involved in the movement; meeting with other women in politics to learn more about the political process, and speaking on behalf of all Sudanese women at the annual UN Security Council Open Debate on Women, Peace and Security.

‘My journey to you was forged by a long line of Sudanese women who have fought for peace and justice in our communities for decades, well before we arrived at this important moment in the future of Sudan,’ she told the UN Security Council last week.

Three of those women, Safaa Ayoub, Huda Ali and Samah Jamous travelled with Alaa to New York to participate in a Civil Society Forum organised by UN Women, the NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security, and the Government of Sweden.

Alaa Salah, Samah Jamous and Huda Ali at UN Headquarters in New York. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown

‘I cannot express how I feel about this opportunity,’ said Samah. ‘It’s only of the [signs] that things are changing in Sudan. This meand hope for me and so many thousands of women and young women in Sudan.’

Samah works to raise awareness about the rights of young women in conflict areas and recently co-founded the Women for Peace Initiative, a youth-led movement creating safe spaces for young community leaders to participate in decision-making processes.

‘Young women’s voices are so important, not only because most of the population of Sudan is young, but also because young women have been subjected to so many things,’ she said.

Alaa echoed this in her remarks to the Security Council, saying, ‘The strength of the revolution came from the representation of diverse voices from across the country. Unless the political process reflects and embraces the diversity of our society – women groups, civil society, resistance groups, ethnic and religious minorities, those who have been displaced, and people with disabilities – no agreement will reflect our collective aspirations.’

Alaa Salah speaks at the UN Security Council Open Debate on Women, Peace and Security in October, 2019. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown

These women are calling for actions to ensure Sudanese women’s meaningful participation, protection of rights, and disarmament within the country.

‘We don’t want an artificial peace process,’ says Huda, a member of the women’s rights coalition MANSAM. ‘We want a real peace process, dealing with the issues of disarmament, and really to make sure there is 50 per cent women’s participation across all levels and structures.’

Huda Ali. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown
She also emphasised the need to take into account diverse perspectives for a truly inclusive peace process.

‘We want to create a process that is really responding to the people’s aspirations about what peace means, because peace means different things to everyone.’

When asked what the Sudanese women and youth really want, Alaa says, ‘The demands of Sudanese youth and women can really be summarised in the slogan of the revolution – Freedom, peace and justice. We want to stop the conflicts in Darfur and across Sudan. We want to live in a society that’s just, in a country that practices justice and accountability … We want to feel that we are living in a country that is giving back to us, and one that we are contributing to build.’