SOUTH SUDAN: The Difficulties of Being a Woman in South Sudan

Thursday, May 3, 2012
Chicago Tribune
Eastern Africa
S. Sudan
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Human Rights
Sexual and Gender-Based Violence

Decades of conflict have left South Sudan with some of the world's worst health and educational indicators, contributing to a growing problem of violence against women in the world's newest nation.

The country, which became independent in July 2011, has the world's highest maternal mortality rate -- 2,054 per 100,000 live births -- and lowest female education rates.

Nearly all women -- some 88 per cent, according to UNESCO -- are illiterate. A girl is statistically more likely to die of pregnancy related causes than complete primary education.

"South Sudan is one of the toughest countries in the world to be a woman," declares Clea Kahn, the head of advocacy at the International Rescue Committee-UK (IRC), which runs a micro-lending programme for women in the country.

"We know from our work with women and girls that violence is routine in their personal lives, and a persistent barrier to getting ahead," said Kahn, noting that women have little economic opportunity.

"On a larger scale, it undermines the enormous potential women have to help transform the new country," she said.

"Women in South Sudan face a vicious cycle of violence and abuse," South Sudanese activist Monica Wol told dpa. "Not only do women face widespread domestic violence, they are also becoming increasingly targeted during the frequent outbreaks of cattle raiding and inter-ethnic conflict."

"The best way to improve their situation is to increase women's education but with such continuing widespread insecurity many parents fear sending their girls to school," Wol said.

Cattle raids at the end of 2011 and the beginning of this year killed hundreds, including women and children, and displaced thousands of people from their home.

Part of the problem of violence in South Sudan is the proliferation of arms. Years of conflict mean the country is awash with guns and rifles, giving ethnic militias the tools to wage bitter feuds.

"Cattle raiding and inter-tribal fighting have been features of South Sudanese life for decades. But the scale, intensity, and impact of violence have increased in recent years," says Lydia Stone, a researcher for the Small Arms Survey's new report "Women and Armed Violence in South Sudan."

In part, woman are suffering as a result of the widespread use of a dowry system, where men pay for brides with cattle, she says.

"It is difficult for women to escape from abusive marriages because their families are reluctant to repay the cows," Stone notes.

Stone believes that the increase in cattle raids is partially a result of boys needing cows to pay for their wives. The availability of arms and the culture of using them to settle scores is making it easier -- and more violent -- to obtain the cattle.

South Sudan's ambassador-at-large, Wol Mayer Ariec told dpa that his government was "extremely committed to improving the situation for women," especially by expanding access to education and healthcare.

He said the key issue "was reducing inter-communal conflict and cattle raiding." The government was working on a disarmament campaign, to get rid of the excess guns, Ariec noted.