Gender roles across various communities in South Sudan solely place the burden of domestic and care work, child upbringing inclusive on women and young girls. What this means is, most women are single-handedly raising children on their own, yet many South Sudanese continue to act like the idea of single mothers is so foreign and unusual. If this is a job already ‘meant’ for women, what makes single motherhood so unimaginable when men ‘culturally’ have a very minimal role to play in their own children’s upbringing in the first place?
As a Southern Sudanese child who was born during the Sudan civil war, the first time I saw my father, I was four (4) years old and he has never been fully around since then. Like many other families with most men out fighting during the war, we grew up mostly with our mother(s). Even after the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in 2005 that ended the Sudan Civil and eventually gave birth to South Sudan as an independent country, this never really changed the narrative. Most families that were displaced or had moved to different parts of the world during the war never moved back. Once again, most men were back in South Sudan and their wives and children living elsewhere. Many women who lost their husbands during the war have had to raise children on their own.
Two of my father’s younger sisters are single mothers, my mother’s young sister lost her husband when she had just given birth to her second child. She was inherited, gave birth to four (4) other children she is raising on her own as the man who inherited her only comes to get her pregnant. Two years ago, my elder sister walked out of a marriage that didn’t work for her. She is currently raising her daughter on her own. If I go further down the family, clan and community line, I will lose count of all the aunties and cousins in these situations.
There are different kinds of single mothers I know amongst South Sudanese communities. I will break this down into four (4) categories of single-motherhood I see in South Sudan because the context could be slightly different from those currently living in other parts of the world.
The first category is what I will call ‘Single mothers in marriage’. These are women who are single-handedly raising their children, breadwinners toiling in farms, in markets, doing all kinds of informal and formal jobs to put food on the table every day. Support their children on all fronts but will never show it because they must make sure the man continues to be perceived as the provider. For some of these women, the men are physically present but not emotionally or financially invested in either the marriage or the children. For some of the women in polygamous marriages, the husbands have physically, romantically, emotionally, and financially moved on to other wives or partners. Women in these kinds of marriages are always asked to remain strong, that the man will one day come around. They are asked to keep praying for their marriages, that they must leave their doors open for whenever this man decides to turn around again. For communities where wife inheritance is practiced, some of the women fall in this category as well.
The second category is the women whom the men responsible for their pregnancy either denied/rejected the mother and the child or disappeared after realizing the woman/girl was pregnant. This category also includes women and girls who got pregnant as a result of rape. Abortion is illegal in South Sudan; this means even victims who desperately want to get rid of that pregnancy have no choice but to keep the pregnancy. Some lucky women in this category have support from their families but it’s not always the case for many.
The third category is women who said fuck it, I’m out. These are women who became single mothers as a result of walking out of relationships/marriages that weren’t simply working for them. For most, they were toxic or abusive relationships in various kinds of ways. These are women who have refused to conform and stay in toxic and abusive marriages for societal recognition and approval.
The last category is ‘single mothers by choice’. These are women who wanted to have children but didn’t want to be in any marriage. This is the category with the least number because patriarchy in South Sudan survives on knotting women’s worth to their proximity to men, so this is not even a category many women see as an option.
The difference between those categories of single mothers is, the women in the first category painfully bow down to patriarchy while women in the rest of the categories defy it. “Single mother” either by choice or circumstances used as an insult or an identity they should be ashamed of. Their single motherhood is weaponized and used against them. Women who embrace their single motherhood are often harassed even more for living up to that identity. How dare you show other women that it is possible to live without being defined by your proximity to a man?
The stigmatization of single motherhood is a patriarchal strategy used to police women into heterosexual submission. In a country where women are only seen through their husbands or other men in their lives, single motherhood shakes this misogynistic and homophobic male control and dominance in marriage, which is the core of patriarchy. May the ongoing conversations on single motherhood in South Sudan continue to shake this foundation until we break through. I am here for all of it.