Where Is Safe For South Sudanese Women And Girls?


South Sudanese women, we cannot catch a break, can we? Not even the fact that South Sudan was turning a decade old this 2021 was a reason enough for us to take a deep breath and reflect in July. In this same month, a video of the Press Secretary in the office of the president, Ateny Wek where he sexualised, objectified, and in short, perpetuated rape hits social media platforms. As expected, the video sparked all kinds of conversations. Not long after that, information about the Minister of Humanitarian Affairs and Disaster Management, Peter Mayen, physically assaulted and stabbed his wife started flooding social media platforms.

In April, this same minister made headlines after he interrupted the Women’s Football match in Aweil to stop and have his footballer wife removed from the game that publicly got violently distractive. An action that received a wide range of support as supposed to the condemnation showed South Sudanese perception of power men have over their wives’ lives or career decisions. In the past, some women have gone live on Facebook in attempts to share their experiences of sexual harassment by Ateny Wek.

For women’s rights activists and organisations invested in ending violence against women and girls, none of these incidents came as a shock because sexual and gender-based violence is an everyday reality in South Sudan. What makes these incidents different is the fact that these two men are high-profile public figures and the media attention these acts gathered. The media responded in their usual patriarchal ways of either giving a platform to alleged abusers (an opportunity to justify their actions) or stigmatise the victims even more.

In both cases, we saw media houses such as Eye Radio trying to get Peter Mayen to respond to media reports when he violently disrupted the women’s football match to get his wife off the pitch. SBS Dinka hosted Ateny Wek in an interview where he made it clear that he will not apologize for his sexist remarks. However, he later issued a statement which was rather him justifying his actions, not necessarily an apology. A few days later, disturbing pictures of footballer Aluel ‘Messi’, Peter Mayen’s wife whom he allegedly assaulted and stabbed were circulating on the internet.

If men in such high public leadership positions can openly make statements that perpetuate rape, physically assault their wives with no consequence then what does that say about South Sudan as a country? What message are they sending to young men and boys?

 If women can’t feel safe at weddings, in the highest office in the country; the president’s office, while living under the same roof with a Minister of Humanitarian Affairs and Disaster Management, walking on the streets, looking for jobs, seeking promotion at the workplace, fetching firewood or simply out trying to make ends meet for their families, when and where exactly shall they ever feel safe? Young girls are regularly sexually abused and exploited in schools, churches, homes, and neighbourhoods.

I have seen people who for once somehow now feel ‘concerned’ for women’s safety trying to advise women on what to do. Others saying “petition the government, mobilize and match to J1” or do this and that to ensure these two men are held accountable. But as long as women and girls continue to be treated as men’s property, violence against them will always be treated as a family/community matter, not a crime.

Women continue to witness brothers or male relatives feel entitled enough to murder their sisters. Husbands like Peter Mayen beat their wives, and many other cases of physical assault and murder of women get treated as “family matters” because women and girls aren’t treated as equals in any relationship or context. Comments like ‘that is her husband’ translated to stay out of this, and because he is her husband, she must do as he wishes otherwise she deserves whatever harm he inflicts on her.

South Sudanese women have been vocal and continue to take all kinds of actions for every case of sexual, domestic, or gender-based violence. It is just that their voices and efforts are up against a system that tends to protect abusers. When these abusers happen to be powerful men like Ateny Wek and Peter Mayen, their careers, reputation, and status get to be prioritised over any woman’s life, dignity and safety.

Driving And Riding While Female In South Sudan

When I officially moved back to South Sudan a couple of years ago, a friend introduced me to his mechanic who later became my mechanic. His garage is a very small space that can only accommodate just a few cars at ago. The first time I ever took my car for him to fix, he asked me to return the following day to pick it. When I came back that morning, he handed me the key and followed me as I walked towards my car. Just when I was about to open the car, he right away offered to help. “let me first get it out of there because it will be difficult for you” he said. I looked at him, smiled, and told him thanks but I can get it out.

Several months later, I went back to him for something else. When I returned later that day, he handed me the keys and again, followed me. This time, the car was parked in a complicated spot, for a second in my head I was like how did you get it there?  I already knew why he was following me, and again, I told him thanks, I think I can get it out, and I did. 

The third time I took my car to him after such a long time, when I went back to pick it, he just handed me my keys and said, “you drive like a man, I know you can get the car out of there”. I don’t remember what exactly I said back to him. It’s been years, but his statement replays in my head like it was just yesterday. 

Those incidents did not just happen in a vacuum. My mechanic’s assumptions are rooted in the stereotype that “women are bad drivers” and the fact that driving is still considered men’s role. A country like Saudi Arabia just lifted the ban and legalized women driving in 2018 but even in countries that seem progressive, this attitude still strongly holds. Yes, it is legal for women to drive in South Sudan, but the stories I have heard or shared in community with other women make it feel like it’s illegal for women to be on the road driving or riding. I have been harassed countlessly by traffic police officers during the day and military men at checkpoints in the evenings who feel even more offended when I question their actions for no reason other than the fact that I am a woman and how dare?

Gender equality will not be achieved in South Sudan by turning women into experts of their socially ascribed gender roles

I have always wondered, what exactly amounts to a set of ‘good’ driving skills? Most of the car or motorcycle accidents within Juba are mostly between male drivers/riders. The innumerous fatal accidents especially on the Juba-Nimule highway involving big trucks, buses, and other small cars all happen under male drivers. Reckless driving/riding is costing us lives every day all over the country. Why have we normalized reckless driving/riding for ‘good’ driving? Why does it feel like a crime to drive or ride responsibility; minding your speed and looking out for other road users including pedestrians? 

Some of the few privileged South Sudanese women who can buy or own private cars/motorcycles for their mobility are defying this gender norm and gradually challenging this stereotype. However, in the private sector, discrimination against women is visible. Most public means of road transportation (motorcycles (boda-boda), buses, minibuses, taxis, tuck-tucks famously known as ‘Raksha’ to many South Sudanese) and businesses in South Sudan are considered jobs for men. This is the same narrative in all the African countries I have been to. Public transportation is an extremely male-dominated field. In Uganda for example where I once lived, as a woman, I found some of these taxi parks and boda-boda stages to be some of the most toxic and rowdily-unsafe places to be. The unwarranted touching and name-calling got me nervous every time I thought about going to a taxi park in Uganda.

However, in South Sudan recently, there is a small shift. A countable number of women are starting to openly express interest and getting employed by Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) as drivers. When people see a female minibus driver /conductor or just a sight of a woman riding a motorcycle, there is this superficial public excitement or amusement. In some instances, you see people taking unconsented photos of the woman but the actual experiences of these countable women daring to take up some of these jobs are not rosy ones. There is a certain level of ‘normality’ seeing women drive private cars than public transportation means and motorcycles (private or commercial).

My friends Sebila who used to ride a motorcycle to work in Wau, Western Bahr el Ghazal and Abak who also rides a motorcycle in Kuajok, Warrap State have a million tales of what it’s like to be riding while female on those streets. But the funny thing is, no one wants to sit with the question of; why is this so rare? what is limiting South Sudanese women from actively participating in this field? Because on the other hand, men are doing jobs that were traditionally considered women’s duties such as cooking as chefs in restaurants, working in salons doing women’s hair, nails, etc., running small local laundry businesses among others. 

Most of the programs designed by NGOs, humanitarian and other development agencies that are doing ‘women empowerment’ programs in South Sudan rather reinforce some of these stereotypes and gender roles. For example, many ‘women economic empowerment’ programs tend to focus on enhancing women’s skills in areas such as catering or cooking, handcrafting, hairdressing, care and hospitality business skills, etc., because those are roles women are easily envisioned in. 

Gender equality will not be achieved in South Sudan by turning women into experts of their socially ascribed gender roles. There is need to focus on breaking these systemic gendered barriers, getting all genders out of the gender box, and facilitating the processes of opening up especially male-dominated fields such as the public transportation sector to women too. Men are not the yardstick, telling a woman “you drive like a man” is not a compliment.

The Struggle With Gendered Kids’ Birthday Cakes And Toys

A few weeks back, I walked into a cafeteria/bakery to book a birthday cake for my niece for her third birthday. Those who live in Juba know how limited the places one can get good cakes are. I went straight to the kids’ section. Among the options was a white Barbie doll/princess dressed in pink and a blue car written on ‘dream car’ and many more.  You know, the obvious narratives that present girls as beautiful princesses and boys as villains and superheroes who are always out there saving the world and building things. When I made up my mind on what to order, I walked to the counter to place my order.

I told the attendant that I need the car but in white instead of blue and gave her my details. When she finished recording my information, she then asked for what to write on the cake, like they always do. I told her to write “happy birthday…” and gave her my niece’s name. Upon hearing the name, she paused, looked at me, and said, “the car cake is for boys, this is a girl’s name, there are options for girls at the end there, did you see them?” I told her yes, I saw all of them and I want the car but in white. She stops writing the name halfway and looks at me seemingly confused. 

I told her the car is written on “dream car” what is wrong with my niece dreaming about owning a car in the future? When she realized I was serious, she turned her attention back to the receipt and completed the name and other details she needed to complete the order. I made my payments, took my copy of the receipt, and left. 

That was not my first experience, it’s my everyday struggle especially when it comes to buying gifts to take to friend’s baby showers or children’s birthdays. The kids’ toy section is always filled with different types of dolls meant for girls and all kinds of guns, superheroes, cars, artillery meant for boys. 

It is almost impossible to find gifts in Juba for children that do not reinforce gender stereotypes and expectations of girls as mothers and caregivers/takers, and boys as builders/creators of things and conquerors. There is always a variety of toys that allow boys to imagine, be creative but at the same time extremely violent in nature as well. 

You are uncomfortable with your son playing with dolls at a young age but expect him to grow into a man who will not see childcare as a woman’s role?

We never pause to question these small things in our fight for gender equality. You are uncomfortable with your son playing with dolls at a young age but expect him to grow into a man who will not see childcare as a woman’s role? As a generation of South Sudanese that is to a certain extend gender-aware and is heavily feeling the impact of gender inequality, how different are we raising our children? What gender stereotypes and expectations are we consciously and unconsciously reinforcing? Some of these things seem small but are not. 

There Are More Single Mothers Than You Think Or Know Of In South Sudan

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.

Adolescent Girls Menstruate Every Month, Make Schools in South Sudan Female-Friendly

The last year or months leading to the moment I first got my period, my only source of information was my friends who had already started getting theirs. There was no concrete conversation in class nor was it discussed at home.  When I was older and had other sources of information, I realized that about 90% of that information I got from my friends was myths but I still appreciated it because it was surely better than nothing then. 

So many young girls in South Sudan are at war with themselves, trying to make sense of all the biological changes happening to their bodies with very minimal prior knowledge, skills, psychological preparedness or guidance through the process. Conversations around those changes especially the menstrual aspect continue to be avoided by parents/guardians at home and at school.

It was in that moment when I started to feel like I have no control over my body. It felt like my body suddenly belongs to some men out there who I don’t even know. 

Attempts to educate girls at home on menstruation tend to be done after the first experience and focus on what menstruation means in terms of the girls’ interactions with men/boys. I remember the one time my mother sat me down to have this talk about two weeks after I just got my first period. I sat with expectations of finally being able to understand what that means, how I should go about it etc., but instead she traumatized me. My mother bombarded me with all kinds of “protection” messages, it was in that moment when I started to feel like I have no control over my body. It felt like my body suddenly belongs to some men out there who I don’t even know. 

Menstruation and its management was not the center of the talk as I had imagined. I was simply transitioning to adulthood or rather “womanhood” as I was made to feel; an identity that I constantly became aware of every second of my day but couldn’t embrace with pride otherwise I was inviting unwanted men/boys, and God forbid if anything happens, it would totally be my fault, so burden and embarrassment found comfort in what is a supposed to be a natural phase of my being. 

Despite the fact that school going girls spend most of their day in school, in terms of Menstruation and Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM), Provision of menstrual materials and facilities, schools in South Sudan are extremely female unfriendly. There is no up-to-date comprehensive nation-wide data on the impact of poor MHM on school going girls in South Sudan, especially in schools but from the SNV “Girls in Control” Compiled Findings from Studies on MHM of Schoolgirls where they assessed 49 schools in Eastern Equatoria.

Menstruation is not just about bleeding and managing it, it’s about the girls’ safety, health and for school going girls, it’s a major factor in their academic excellence.

Some of the reported challenges girls face in schools include; lack of privacy as one of the main issues, some schools do not have latrines, others have latrines which are not sex segregated, some schools have no water points within. Girls raised concerns of buys laughing at them, name calling, isolation, humiliation, and to some extend “being approached for sex at that time of the month since they have a high attraction to the opposite sex during that time”. Some girls are restricted from movement during menstruation, others undergo cleansing and ritual performance and a handful reported feelings of discomfort as they are seen as unclean by the community during that time. South Sudan is quite diverse so different communities approach it differently but there are similarities across cultures. 

Menstruation is not just about bleeding and managing it, it’s about the girls’ safety, health and for school going girls, it’s a major factor in their academic excellence. Its beyond just privacy in terms of constructing sex-segregated latrines, but the level of cleanliness of those latrines, access to water, soap and decent facilities for disposal of used sanitary materials within those latrines. All the schools I have been to, both primary and secondary especially in Juba and its outskirts, do not meet the global Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) standards, although the level varies from one school to the other; Toilets are extremely dirty, the existing water points are far from the toilets and for some schools it’s strictly drinking water, not meant to be “wasted on other things”, no proper disposal facilities and I can’t even talk about soap, that’s a luxury. 

Most schools have no emergency sanitary materials for when a girl unexpectedly gets her period while at school. Menstruation is not clearly articulated in the curriculum so it’s not part of the general learnings for both boys and girls. Females make up only 12% of South Sudan’s teaching population, some schools have no female teachers so when opportunities to have these conversations arise, they are headed by mostly male teachers who lack comprehensive knowledge on menstruation and its hygiene management. To make it worse, the manner in which this content is often delivered simply turns the session into a laughing matter for boys while girls just wish for the ground to swallow them in that moment.

Girls are made to feel ashamed of a normal biological bodily function they have no control over and the psychological abuse they are subjected to for this is unthinkable.

The school environment is already very challenging for girls even when they have their sanitary materials with them, so one can only imagine what they have to go through when they unexpectedly get their period in class, and or stain their uniform: they have nowhere to clean up or get sanitary materials within the school premises, some have to walk long distances back home while bleeding and miss school on those days. Girls are made to feel ashamed of a normal biological bodily function they have no control over and the psychological abuse they are subjected to for this is unthinkable.

A few lucky schools benefit from Nongovernmental Organizations that come to mentor girls and, or provide dignity kits and establish school clubs where these conversations continue to be held within schools. However, that’s not enough and neither is it sustainable.  To protect girls, provide for their health and contribute to their academic performance, Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM) must be intentionally embedded in all the National Education and Health especially WASH Policy Frameworks including budgets and streamed down to all levels of programming.

This will improve sanitation and MHM facilities in most schools across the country. In terms of education, this will also ensure menstruation is not only clearly articulated in the curriculum but the science textbooks used nation-wide are context specific and progressive in ways that transform attitudes towards menstruation.

Removal of all taxes on imported sanitary materials was one of the recommendations from the prilimary report on the South Sudan National Budget 2018-2019 snapshot analysis of the budget done by The Institute of Social Policy and Research (ISPR) and South Sudan Democratic Engagement, Monitoring and Observation Programme (SSuDEMOP). If such recommendations are nationally taken into serious consideration, this would be one big win for many South Sudanese girls. Sanitation and MHM is a critical part of children’s health and well-being while at school, this should not be left to individual schools to determine how they wish or choose to go about it. The protection and serenity of girls at school is a national responsibility.

Embracing My Natural Hair Was The Best Decision I Ever Made

“Your hair is so beautiful; can you make mine like yours?” said the little Tibetan girl 

In 2017, I was in  Dharamshala, India with 27 other youth peacebuilders from some of the most conflict-ridden countries in the world for the “Youth Leaders Exchange with His Holiness the Dalai Lama”, a program by United States Institute of Peace . Dharamshala since 1960 has become home for Tibetans who followed the Dalai Lama after he went to exile after the 1959 Tibetan Uprising

Our hotel was strategically located near a small shopping center so we took walks whenever we had some time to. It seemed to me that this area rarely saw black people come around, my braided hair was a conversation starter for some. People stared at me in what felt like amusement to me, a few courageous ones would walk up to me and say “you are beautiful, where are you from?”. I will admit, the staring was uncomfortable sometimes, but I never felt any hate, the stare wasn’t threatening, what I felt was rather curiosity. When we visited the Tibetan Children’s Village (TCV) School, the fascination on those little girls’ faces was just so beautiful to watch. “Your hair is so beautiful; can you make mine like yours?” said one little Tibetan girl

When I was younger, like many other things I never paid much attention to, hair was one of those. I spent most of my childhood between Yambio and Yei in the Southern part of the then Sudan. It was during the Sudan civil war and those where Sudan People Liberation Army (SPLA) control areas, there were bigger things to worry about.  It was when my family moved to Uganda where I started high school that I started noticing hair dynamics. In Uganda, it was more intentional, it wasn’t just about keeping your hair short but it was a particular kind of short, anything beyond that length was punishable.

I never made any connection with my natural hair growing up because it was constantly shaved off as soon as it grew

Extremely short hair for all girls with the kinky kind of African hair in most schools has become an unquestionable norm in most schools across Uganda. The first high school I joined had one white girl who was allowed to keep her hair. That was the same narrative with other schools we interacted with. While girls with kinky African hair were monitored and harassed to constantly shave their hair, white and mixed-race or girls of color were allowed to keep their long natural hair. 

I never made any connection with my natural hair growing up because it was constantly shaved off as soon as it grew. At home, in the neighborhood and everywhere I went, all I saw were women wearing all kinds of weaves, braided hair and very few with their hair in its natural form or had dreadlocks. Those that wore their own hair had it relaxed. So when I had opportunities to do my hair especially during those slightly longer school holidays like Christmas, I would relax my short hair, braid or wear a weave.

Throughout my university I visited salons to remove a weave and put one right back even when I realised it was damaging my hairline

When I finished high school, one of the things I was most excited about was the fact that I would finally get to grow my own hair. The sad reality is, I was excited to freely grow it hidden in braids, relaxed or under weaves. Throughout my university I visited salons to remove a weave and put one right back even when I realised it was damaging my hairline. I graduated from “synthetic weaves to “natural weaves” even when it felt nothing naturally relatable to my natural hair. I spent a lot of my student upkeep trying to keep up with these “natural weaves” trends because it wasn’t just about wearing a weave, the kind of weave you wore articulated your “status and stylishness”.  

For the longest time, I never embraced my own natural hair, it never felt good enough, it felt untidy and too burdensome in its natural form. There are unspoken standards of the quality of “admirable” natural kinky African hair one can wear proudly; it has to be of a certain texture, volume and color that I felt mine didn’t meet. 

In 2015, I decided to cut my hair. I cut my hair because I was tired of weaves, my hairline was really getting damaged and keeping up with fancy weaves was just starting to feel like such an unnecessary expense. But even when I cut my hair, I didn’t leave it in its natural form, I relaxed and colored it, so I still frequented the salon to maintain it including braiding it here and there for two years. It wasn’t any less burdensome and neither was it cheaper either but I still committed to it. Those two years unconsciously made me slowly realize that there was actually nothing wrong with my hair, I started falling in love with my own hair. It was only then that I started seeing how beautiful my hair actually is. “I do have beautiful hair”, I started convincing myself in the mirror.

By the end of 2017, I had stopped relaxing the growing hair to match the already relaxed part so my natural hair, “growth” they refer to it in salons was now visible. When my growing natural hair was long enough for me to trim the relaxed hair on top, I started braiding it more and more. In April 2018 when it felt long enough, I locked my hair. That was the best decision I ever made. For the first time, I felt like I became my true self, I felt free.

Marriage is Not a Career, Raise South Sudanese Girls to be Independent

I once had a heated debate with a medical doctor friend of mine over ‘women, education, and careers’.  I was trying to demonstrate to him that expecting women who have 8:00 am-5:00 pm jobs to return home and solely fulfill their gender roles (housework) is inhuman. I could tell I had logically challenged him when his conclusion after nearly an hour of this conversation was “no matter how educated you think you are, you’ll still end up in a man’s house”

Life doesn’t get easier when your first crime upon entering this world is being born female, a crime you had no role in committing. South Sudanese communities seem to sense that the world is evolving and it’s evolving fast, and that education or any set of formal knowledge and skills is what is likely to determine one’s position and influence in the society in this era. Unfortunately, because South Sudan is an extremely patriarchal country, that assumption doesn’t hold for everyone. A South Sudanese woman can be the most qualified in any space and still be referred to as ‘marasakit’ which means ‘just a woman’. 

When she makes mistakes whether, at school or home, she is not judged based on any values and principles of humanity but rather always a question of “who will marry her?” 

A South Sudanese girl’s body is so commodified that sending her to school feels like a charitable act she should be grateful for, to begin with. To many guardians, a school for girls is nothing but a waiting ground for when the rightful man who will take care of her and her family shows up. There is no value beyond marriage attached to her education, so when she is “privileged” enough to access education, she is a girl first before she is a pupil or student. This means her progressiveness is measured based on her gender roles and expectations.

This process of being trained on what it means to be a “good girl” and future “wife material” is so intense for young girls that education feels like an additional punishment for their mere existence. She must be among the first people to wake up every morning, not only because she must first perform her gender roles of ensuring the house is cleaned and breakfast made before she can even think about getting ready for school but also simply because a girl has no right to just sleep till late. This is the same routine upon her return. While at home, she can only comfortably and peacefully focus if at all she gets to study when there is no pending housework to be done. That means she will automatically be among the last people to go to bed. On days when the family especially the mother has other emergencies to attend to, it’s the girl child who is asked to skip school to babysit and look after the house among other house responsibilities.

When she makes mistakes whether, at school or home, she is not judged based on any values and principles of humanity but rather always a question of “who will marry her?”  Electricity is a luxury only a few can afford in most parts of South Sudan, her failure to utilize those late-night hours to study using a candle or any other source of light is punishable, how dare she not top her class? She is expected to be grateful for the few hours she has to study whether during the day or late in the night before she sleeps. There is no consideration for her bodily wellbeing. Any inconsistencies in her academic performances have consequences and for some, that’s often reason enough to force them to drop out of school. She has no time to discover herself beyond the kitchen classroom. When excelling in school becomes impossible given all the gender weight, marriage is the only “safe” option for many girls, after all, that’s the job she was trained for right from childhood. 

According to UNICEF-South Sudan, 2.2 million school-aged children in South Sudan are out of school. South Sudan has the highest rate of about 72% of children missing out on education and among the countries with the highest rate of about 60% of girls who are out of school. The net enrolment percent of secondary school-aged female children was only 4% as per 2017, which means few girls make it to secondary school but only a very small number get to complete secondary school. 

Teach South Sudanese girls self-sufficiency; don’t raise your daughters for other men, raise them for themselves and nurture their dreams

My doctor male friend was completely unable to envision me beyond my “housewife” future self in the argument we had, that was his only determinant for the worthiness of a woman. Education is a human need and right for all. Attending school in itself is a full-time commitment, prioritise South Sudanese girls’ education and well-being. Domestic work shouldn’t be left to only girls, invest the same energy in teaching boys how to do housework as well, it’s for their benefit. Invest in your daughters’ education not so you can be rewarded for taking care of her but because it’s your parental responsibility. Teach South Sudanese girls self-sufficiency; don’t raise your daughters for other men, raise them for themselves and nurture their dreams. Marriage is not a career, it’s a supplementary life companionship and partnership between individuals, don’t make it the South Sudanese girls’ only ultimate life goal. 


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.