After decades of marginalisation, South Sudanese women may soon be able to lead a normal life now that their country has gained independence and ended years of conflict with North Sudan.
In order for Sudanese women to enjoy sustained peace, their newly-established country requires global (especially African) support to maintain calm, rebuild the economy and improve basic services, particularly for women.
Women leaders from the Southern African Development Community (SADC), including from the security sector, are some of the best placed to lend a helping hand to their sisters in South Sudan.
Not only do SADC women have experience in rebuilding countries which were once at war, the SADC Protocol on Gender and Development - signed by 13 SADC countries and ratified by eight - commits State Parties to put in place measures to ensure that women have equal representation and participation in key decision-making positions in conflict resolution and peace-building processes by 2015.
However, the 2011 SADC Gender Protocol Barometer, which will officially be launched in August, has found that Southern African women are still underrepresented in peace-keeping and peace-building missions. Only Namibia, at 43 percent, is anywhere close to meeting the Protocol target of 50 percent women in peace-keeping forces. The majority of SADC countries send just 10 percent women or less on peace-keeping missions.
Now is the time for these countries to step up, meet this target and send skilled SADC women to South Sudan where their help is desperately needed.
Providing basic services to this nascent but ravaged country remains a mammoth task for the new government of President Salva Kiir. South Sudan became independent from the rest of Sudan on 9 July 2011 following years of conflict. Its independence brings the membership of the African Union and the United Nations (UN) (www.un.org) to 54 and 193 respectively.
But massive assistance is needed to improve access to clean water in the world's newest country. Support is also vital in the construction of new schools and the refurbishment of old ones.
The UN estimates that only 30 percent of South Sudanese girls are in primary school while more than 80 percent of women are illiterate. Child marriage is common: young girls in the country have a greater chance of dying in childbirth than they have of completing school.
South Sudan needs help rehabilitating its fragile health system to make child-bearing safer for women. According to the Sudan Household Health Survey and the 2008 World Children's Status Report, the country has one of the highest maternal and infant mortality rates in the world: approximately 2 054 women die out of every 100 000 live births. This is in addition to at least 102 infants that die in every 1 000 live births in health institutions.
There is an urgent need to train more health professionals such as doctors, clinical officers and midwives. Malawi's recent success bringing down infant and maternal mortality rates suggests this region has such skills to share.
Efforts might also be channelled into improving communication networks, including road and rail, to allow women, particularly those involved in cross-border business or small and medium enterprise, to freely trade.
There is also a need to maintain women's positive increases in decision-making positions to achieve gender parity in line with continental and international targets.
Since the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) was signed to end the 21-year Sudanese civil war, the number of women in parliament increased from 28 in 2005 to 52 in 2011. The Southern Sudan Legislative Assembly is made up of 170 members.
"I hope in the next elections in four years time, the number of women will go up to 100 so that they - as a majority in parliament - put in place laws that are appropriate to protect women," said Gender Minister Agnes Lasuba.
However, she acknowledged without outside support, South Sudanese women will remain poor and have little to show for their independence.
In his inaugural speech, President Kiir concurred and urged the global community to work with South Sudan in rebuilding the world's newest country.
South Sudan was born with myriad problems, especially for its troubled women. Although Southern African women also face challenges, they have made great political, social and economic strides in recent years.
Now is the time for them to share these successes with their northern neighbours.
- Kizito Sikuka is a Zimbabwean journalist and current holder of the COMESA Media Award for the best print journalist to report on regional economic integration. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service. It is republished here with the permission of Gender Links.