The Post Independence South Sudanese Deserve a Home

Born in Itang refugee camp in Ethiopia during the Sudan Civil war, I spent most of my childhood years living in Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) controlled areas between Yambio, Nzara, and Yei in Equatoria Region, where I attended my primary school in church and United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) funded schools.  

When South Sudan attained independence in 2011, I came back to Juba to participate in the Independence Day celebrations. To me, that marked the beginning of a new era, I finally had a place to proudly call home. The memories of witnessing the flag being raised in 2011 are still vivid in my mind. Belonging to a country meant that my status as a refugee had changed to immigrant, I was excited about getting my passport. 

“The memories of witnessing the flag being raised in 2011 are still vivid in my mind”

Unfortunately, this excitement was short-lived when two years later (2013), a political conflict broke out in Juba, South Sudan. The result was millions of South Sudanese being displaced both internally and externally. This was even made worse in 2016 when the second conflict broke out again.  As my family was privileged enough to be driving away in a car as I helplessly watched so many families being re-displaced, running in all directions when the shooting intensified near Jebel Kujur that Sunday morning, July 10, 2016. This brought back my childhood traumas of running to hide in “kandaks” (bunkers) especially in Yei during the bombings. That night I struggled to sleep, I found myself reliving the experiences of hearing the Sudanese Bomber planes and SPLA firing their Anti-Aircraft guns in attempts to down the planes 

Most South Sudanese especially the generations born in the 80s and 90s were born and raised in conflict; From being born in refugee and displacement camps to living in SPLA controlled areas like Internality Displaced Persons (IDPs) in their country with no access to national basic services from the government in Khartoum to becoming refugees across the globe.

The conflict against the Sudanese government made more sense back then because it felt like it was a fight for the common good. No South Sudanese child born after the South Sudan flag was raised in 2011 deserves to be a refugee or internally displaced begging for basic needs from humanitarian providers. the children born in 2011 are turning eight (8) years of age this year, 2019. With an estimate of 2.2 million school-aged children out of school, about 30% of schools damaged, destroyed, occupied or closed according to UNICEF South Sudan Education Briefing Note August 2019, the child mortality rate at 98.6 deaths per 1,000 live births as per 2018 records by World Data Atlas-South Sudan,  decent shelter and food remains a dream for many householders, how different are these children’s lives from those born during the Sudan Civil War? 

“No South Sudanese child born after the South Sudan flag was raised in 2011 deserves to be a refugee or internally displaced begging for basic needs from humanitarian providers”

These Conflicts have been detrimental to the lives of most young South Sudanese for generations, robbing them of the opportunity to access or put their acquired knowledge to good use with hopes that the conflict ends soon enough for them to finally pursue their dreams and meaningfully contribute to the nation building processes. 2011 marked the beginning of the “New Sudan” but where is the promised land?

 

 

 

 

 

  

 

Marriage: A Social Contract or a Business Transaction in South Sudan?

In 2017, I became a member of the Interagency Task Force on Ending Child Marriage-South Sudan; a Multi-Stakeholder Taskforce comprising of related Government Ministries, Civil Society, and UN agencies established to Co-ordinate and implement the Road Map and development of the Strategic National Action Plan on Ending Child Marriage in South Sudan, and to hold each other accountable. This was spearheaded by United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA-South Sudan)

In June 2018, we successfully launched the “End Child Marriage in South Sudan: Strategic National Action Plan (SNAP) 2017-2030”. My organization, Crown The Woman-South Sudan being one of the National Nongovernmental Organisations that took part in the strategy development process and works with mostly adolescent girls and boys, UNFPA-South Sudan partnered with us after the launch to start an awareness-raising campaign “Too Young to be Married” to engage school-going girls and boys, educators and guardians in conversations on Child Marriage.

This process brought back a lot of memories from my early teenage years’ of unwarranted marriage proposals. From the early 2000s, a lot of “lost boys” started repatriating funds to their relatives back in different parts of Africa especially back home and in the neighbouring countries where many Southern Sudanese lived as refugees to get for them young brides. The simple fact that the men who expressed interest were from “abroad” was a reason enough for the girls approached to either be expected to feel special or actually feel special.

Given the war and the economic hardships back home and in the refugee camps, the burden of family economic security was often placed on young girls who mostly accepted marriage proposals to men they didn’t even physically know because that guaranteed financial support to their families, and for some, access to education for their brothers or any close male relatives then. Economically able men whether abroad or from within the country marrying underage and illiterate girls from poor economic backgrounds has become a norm in South Sudan. Some of the “Lost Boys” are partially responsible for this commercialziation of marriage especially from the early 2000s when they started competing for young girls back in Africa and paying high bride price. A practice that became so common mostly in refugee camps, every family wished their daughters be married by “lost boys” because that somehow meant financial security.

Economically able men whether abroad or from within the country marrying underage and illiterate girls from poor economic backgrounds has become a norm in South Sudan

Among the many ways through which unwarranted marriage proposals were made, some found ways to speak to the girls directly while others did it through their relatives who identified for them young brides, these were the people who did all the “vetting” on ground. I vividly remember this one particular time when a prominent well-respected church lady came home with her brothers’ in-law who claimed to have identified me from Kabowa church in Kampala, which I attended, as someone well suited for one of their brothers in the United States of America.

In the Dinka Bor culture, when a man is interested in a girl, he comes home and just stands for as long as he can until the girl welcomes him home to sit. An indication that its either him interested in the girl or someone close to him. This has, of course, evolved. I remember sitting there with the three of them, my two young aunties and elder sister who were my “spokespeople” in the living room literally speechless with tears just rolling down my cheeks. Later that day I was scolded by one aunty saying, “crying in front of those people was embarrassing”.

My father has more girls than boys, and never in our lives have we ever felt treated differently because of our gender. He often said “I am investing in you for your future, not because I want anything in return. If you mess that up, know that you are the one who will suffer, not me”. I was certain that he would never force me into anything or do anything I don’t want to especially when it comes to marriage. That assurance was what kept my heart at peace during those times. The church lady and her brothers’ in-law after several unsuccessful attempts eventually left me alone.

Some of the “lost boys” are partially responsible for this commercialziation of marriage especially from the early 2000s when they started competing for young girls back in Africa and paying high bride price

However, there is a completely different reality for many South Sudanese girls. “52% of girls in South Sudan are married before their 18th birthday and 9% are married before the age of 15” Many girls feel powerless and lack the agency to refuse child and forced marriage because they believe they have no rights. Broadly, several economic and social factors continue to drive child and forced marriage in South Sudan but the current commercialization of marriage makes many young girls even more vulnerable to forced and child marriage.

There is absolutely nothing “cultural” about the current wedding processes especially amongst certain sections of Nilotes in South Sudan who happen to be the majority and known for attaching so much value to bride price among other things. While the parents/guardians are asking for ridiculous amounts of cattle and or money for bride price, (for some, the higher the level of education, the higher the bride price), weddings are not everyday experiences so, some young couples wish to have memorable weddings which means doing two weddings in one for some; the ‘traditional’ and the ‘white’ wedding. Don’t get me wrong, the beauty in these celebrations can feel priceless but really, none of these is cost effective given how communal South Sudanese especially Dinka marriages are. I often wonder if anyone at all really cares how the young couple will start off their new life after honeymoon, thats if they can even still afford to have one by the end of this process.

In as much as there are contradictions in the legal framework in South Sudan such as the unclear definition of “marriageable age”, the laws on paper generally recognise and protect the rights of the girl child. In addition to the legal framework and other efforts such as the Strategic Action Plan on Ending Child Marriage in South Sudan by 2030, South Sudan is a signatory to various regional and international instruments such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), The African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of Children that the parliament passed clearly and strongly prohibits child marriage as well as the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Laws, policies and strategic plans continue to be drafted and passed but end up sitting on office shelves especially in public institutions meant to spearhead them. Political will comes with a national budget allocation and commitments that make implementation of laws, policies and programs possible, which South Sudan lacks. Unless Donors pick up the ball and get it rolling, nothing moves but for how long are Nongovernmental Organisations going to continue to perform government’s tasks? Its one thing to wish to protect the girl child but its another to actually commit to it. No country can progress when almost half of its population is expected to be dependent and unable to meaningfully contribute beyond their households.

When Girls Are Commodified, Education Becomes A Luxury

Most extremely patriarchal and pastoralist communities are known for prioritizing the marriage of girls for bride price which becomes the only measure of their worth. As a result, a lot of these communities have low literacy rates amongst females

Growing up, because girls are socialised to be responsible and learn to fix things from such a young age. I spent a lot of time around my mother, aunties, elder female cousins being taught how to cook, care for a baby, how to “behave” among other things as it’s a mandatory part of “future potential wife material” mentorship process. That enabled me from a young age to watch and listened to women share all kinds of stories

My mother was one of those few underage girls who joined the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M). She is a member of the only female battalion which was known as the “Katiba Banat”. These women maintained such a strong friendship bond even after most of them left the army and got married. As children and to date, everyone of them that we were introduced to was an aunty, it was when I got older that I realised these were actually just mom’s friends, not actual blood sisters or cousins . It was and still such an admirable sisterhood.

I learnt a lot from just being around these phenomenal women, listening to their experiences and stories. From all their stories, one thing however was evident, and that was the fact that most of these women had such mind-blowing aspirations and dreams that seem to have been shuttered the moment they decided to get married . Only a few of them remained active in their military careers even after they were married, for many, those marriages were the end of their dreams.

I spent a lot of my childhood imagining and wondering what these women’s life choices would be if they had had the opportunities to go further with their education and, or pursued their careers to date alongside their male counterparts. If only they went far to be self-sufficient enough. Woman who sacrificed and locked up so much potential for the sake of their families; a decision that was never recognised, appreciated nor honored.

All I see are powerful women who seem to have more regrets and pain, pain I wish I could somehow take away. Growing up, I felt like my mother was projecting her hopes and dreams on me, pushing me to be everything she wished she could have been if she had the opportunities I have. I could feel that she knew if I took the opportunities I have seriously, I would have a different life than she did.

South Sudan female literacy rate is 19.2%

My mother was not the only one, this was the narrative for almost every woman I knew growing up and still a reality. South Sudan female literacy rate is 19.2% according to UNESCO Institute for Statistics. I have a voice today because I was raised in a home where I was valued and had access to the same opportunities as my brothers. Among those opportunities, I had access to not just education but quality education, especially after my family moved to Uganda where I studied from high school to university.

There are several factors affecting the Education sector in South Sudan but from my experiences and years of engagement with adolescent girls and boys, their educators and guardians, the most outstanding one is, the underfunding of the Education sector which has transferred the whole burden to communities already robbed of opportunities to provide for their families by the protracted conflict. This makes it even harder for those willing to prioritize education as a basic need, especially for their female children. Education is a basic need but in South Sudan, it is a privilege.

When girls have to walk long distances to and from school to learning environments that are not very female friendly (from menstrual hygiene point of view to lack of female role models/mentors in schools as females make up only 12% of the country’s teaching population), balance school with domestic work, and the questionable quality of education among other challenges that girls personally battle with not to mention the family, communal and societal barriers they must break, Education just starts to feel like one additional burden these young girls have to deal with every day.

In this capitalistic patriachal society, sending children to school is expensive but sending girls to school feels even more expensive. Most extremely patriarchal and pastoralist communities are known for prioritizing the marriage of girls for bride price which becomes the only measure of their worth. As a result, a lot of these communities have low literacy rates amongst females. There is no doubt that international organizations such as UNICEF-South Sudan, Plan International among others and programs such as Girls Education South Sudan (GESS) funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID) have and continue to do the most to push for Education especially for girls in South Sudan. However, the Education sector is driven and led by donors and the private sector given the limited commitment from the government in terms of resources.

The National Budget allocated to the education sector in South Sudan has consistently been below the national targets of 10% by South Sudan’s General and Higher Education Acts 2012 and 20% as recommended by the Global Partnership for Education.

From UNICEF South Sudan Education-Budget-Brief 2019,  the National Budget allocated to the Education sector has consistently been below the national targets of 10% by South Sudan’s General and Higher Education Acts 2012 and 20% as recommended by the Global Partnership for Education. Regionally and Internationally UNESCO database of government expenditure shows that South Sudan has the lowest investment in public education, standing at less than 1% of real GDP as per 2017.

South Sudan can only scrupulously realize change if it prioritizes the delivery of services in the Education sector with support from the international community but not the other way around. My hope for South Sudan lies in the Education sector, the transformation of the conflict and the various social norms limiting young girls and women from realizing and utilizing their full potential is where change will happen. All most South Sudanese girls need is more education opportunities to harness their potential and voice. I cannot turn back the clock for my mother, but changing the narrative for as many girls is the only gift I can ever give her in return.

Mentoring the Young is an Investment in the Future of South Sudan

I look back to certain choices I made earlier in life and wish I had a mentor

I have always wondered how you can refer to someone as a “future leader” when you are not investing in them today? This South Sudan is not the promised land the youth of today were expecting. The Southern Sudanese youth who fought the liberation war are now parents and grandparents to a generation that is still marrying and raising their children in war. Youth are expected to not be too involved today because “they are tomorrow’s leaders”.

That is not only an excuse to avoid constructively engaging youth but an opportunity to equally not invest in them. This day, as a young person who was born and raised during the Sudan Civil war, I feel betrayed by my current leaders and for that, like many South Sudanese youth today, I am extremely bitter. Bitter because what kept us hopeful as children during the Liberation struggle was the thought and hope that someday we’ll have a country of our own.

They gave us a country but we’ll not sit and watch them destroy it for our children and grandchildren.

The thing about conflict is, life becomes a matter of survival, not living. For many of us who became refugees in foreign countries, we know life can be differently better because we have seen it in those countries. Our parents and grandparents spent their youthful days fighting to “liberate us”. That same agency and need to deliver a better ‘Sudan’ to their children is the same exact way today’s youth feel the generational responsibility. They gave us a country but we’ll not sit and watch them destroy it for our children and grandchildren.

Many of South Sudan’s current and retired leaders are moving libraries with a breadth of knowledge, skills, and experiences that today’s youth have limited access to in a widening inter-generational gap. What young South Sudanese leaders need today is to simply feel heard and nurtured. While inter-generational gap is an issue recognized globally, there hasn’t been any tangible efforts in addressing it so far.

The sense I get from many South Sudanese youth is the feeling of no one is listening, instead, they feel betrayed and excluded, leading to confrontations and unsuccessfully engagements. All the parties (the youth and the older generation) have been communicating at cross purpose, and reactionary response to the youth demands for inclusion in all levels of decision-making processes has been to simply silence the discussion. As a result, quotas are introduced to ensure “youth representation” and “special positions” created for youth with very minimal mentorship or leadership guidance whatsoever.

There is value in being mentored by someone who has your lived experiences, knows your roots, and your aspirations. Someone who shares the same vision for your country.

As a Peace and women’s rights activist, I’ve had access to spaces that have enabled me to interact and be mentored by some of the world’s most influential leaders including His Holiness the Dalai Lama, engaged in peer to peer mentorship with youth and women’s leaders globally as well as attend multiple pieces of trainings on leadership skills. However, there is value in being mentored by someone who has your lived experiences, knows your roots, and your aspirations. Someone who shares the same vision for your country. This is exactly how conversations with South Sudanese, the likes of Dr. Julia Aker Duany, the Retired Bishop Paride Taban among other South Sudanese Leaders make me feel.

If there is one thing I will never let my busy schedule take away is; my time dedicated to mentoring the younger people in my life especially girls wether doing it in person or virtually in whatever capacity. I know what it’s like to need someone who can simply listen to you and give you some guidance where need be. I look back to certain choices I made earlier in life and wish I had a mentor. I look back and wonder what kind of a leader I would be today had I had mentorship opportunities earlier in life. The South Sudan we’ll have a few decades from now will depend on the kind of children we raise and mentor today.

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I Refuse to be a Prisoner of Fear

If I die for speaking out for myself or others, I will know I died a free soul. I refuse to be a prisoner of fear, I refuse to live in my mind.

Growing up, I admired Southern Sudanese people so much for all the passion and courage they had standing up for their rights during the liberation struggle. My parents just like millions of other South Sudanese fought and spent their entirety youth miserable so I can be free, have an identity and simply belong. Southern Sudanese went through hell and back to get this country (South Sudan).

The “paradise” South Sudanese dreamt of for years. I imagined a “New Sudan” where every child had access to quality education, decent and affordable health care for all, a country governed by rule of law with the utmost respect for women’s rights, where one freely traveled and lived in whichever part of the country they wished to. Knowing how much the older generation sacrificed for this vision (in whatever formed it looked like for them) convinced the younger generations that the only way they can ever pay them back the generations that fought for our “freedom” is by utilizing every opportunity and become everything they dreamt of but could only wish for the next generation.

Today in the country I was promised freedom and prosperity, I continue to see people I know get killed or if they choose to spare your life, you get harassed or jailed for speaking your truth. Aware of the fact that the system doesn’t care about the truth, everyone who cares about me is terrified of the fact that I could be next. I have lost count of family meetings I have been to where I was the agenda. I totally and completely understand where they are coming from because what they feel is not just fear, it is an actual danger.

However, I didn’t choose activism, activism chose me, I am a product of activism. Both my parents joined the Sudan Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M) when they were equally young. My mother is a member of “katiba Banat” the only female battalion during the liberation struggle and my father is still active in the military to date. The same way they felt about the then regime is exactly how I feel about this current regime under their leadership.

It’s often understood that people only get in trouble by or for doing something but we never calculate how much damage we do by simply choosing to do nothing or remain silent. We are living in a country where; citizens look to International and National Nongovernmental Oraganizations for service provision, fighting a senseless war that has ended lives and displaced millions of people both internally and externally while dishonoring Peace Agreements year in and out. A country where certain individuals are above the law, where the national cake ends up in houses of those entrusted to distribute it. A country where the presence of security persons who are supposed to protect us terrify us the most. How can South Sudanese youth afford to remain silent?

I care for my country people enough to constructively criticize public institutions because I know the potential and resources they have to serve South Sudanese better so I will continue to speak. If I die for speaking out for myself or others, I will know I died a free soul. I refuse to be a prisoner of fear, I refuse to live in my mind. Like every other youth in the world, South Sudanese youth have a role to play to contribute to sustainable peace and development that dismantle all forms of inequalities and discrimination in South Sudan and globally.