Awut Deng Acuil’s eyes have the haunted look common to people from Sudan’s war-ravaged south, but it is clear at once that neither national upheaval nor personal trauma can slow her down. The grassroots peace activist and women’s advocate—who once embarked on a speaking tour with her 40-day-old baby in tow, while in deep grief for the death of her husband—is not an easy person to stop.
When Deng talked with Sojourners earlier this year at the World Social Forum in India, she looked bone-tired from five days of speaking and conference-going. No matter how weary she is, though, Deng looks you in the eye and tells you the truth—whether about Sudanese women’s struggle for empowerment, the peacemaking process that has healed bloody conflicts within southern Sudan, or Deng’s own pain at her husband’s death. Simply dressed, with short hair and a direct gaze, Deng speaks with weight and quiet determination.
Deng is passionate about the need for women to play an active role in guiding Sudan’s future. She was one of six women delegates from the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement in its negotiations with the northern government in 2002—but later each of the six was taken off the official list, one by one, with no explanation. Deng herself was the last to go. As she describes female struggles to participate in the peace process—"a step forward, a step backward"—her face shows a patience that is anything but passive.
After being excluded from the north-south talks, women met to issue their own statements and organize demonstrations. Sudanese women have suffered profoundly from the rape, abduction, and economic devastation that accompany war—and, because of the ravages of war, women now make up the majority in southern Sudan.