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Working with women in Sudan

  • Published

    12 March 2010
  • Written by

    Peace Direct

The old woman folds a shawl around her crinkled face as she squints into the midday sun. She holds out a basket for sale. In the pouch around her waist is enough cash to feed her family for a week. Today she will not need to dedicate her singing to bloodshed.

Fatima is from Southern Sudan. Her people, the Hakamat, revere the elder women of their tribe as singers of ritual songs – songs that accompany building a house or gathering a crop, but lately have supported war.

During decades of civil war, each armed group in her region of South Kordofan would adopt a Hakamat woman to sing them battle songs. The singing gave them courage and confidence. The singers became rich and important.

When the Civil War ended, the militias disbanded and the singers lost business. They fell back on their villages to support them – and found that songs of blood worked there too. A lucrative line of work emerged. In pastoral communities where old wounds remain from 23 years of war, the influence of a Hakamat singer could inflame a dispute over a cow into a vendetta between tribes.

The Collaborative for Peace understood the influence of these women. But they believed the advocates of war could become ambassadors for peace.

Other people had tried this before and failed. Hakamat women had agreed to sing peaceful songs at festivals, and then returned to their ways. As the Collaborative explains, “Villagers do not give money to songs of peace, and as soon as a festival was over the women returned to the way they were before.”

But the Collaborative, with their local knowledge and contacts, looked deeper into the problem. They talked to the singers. They told them that the real problem was how to earn a living. One said, “We want to learn the songs of peace, so no more of our children will be lost in war. But you must train us in something, so that we can support ourselves.”

So the Collaborative brought a trainer from Khartoum to their village, a woman who was skilled in [weaving], and for two weeks the trainer taught the Hakamat women her skills. And all the time, the Collaborative talked with them about war and peace: “I told the women their hands needed to be with the hands of all Sudan.”

Today these women are makers of all kinds of handicrafts. They sing about peace. And Fatima can feed her family without inciting violence.

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