Home | Reports    Wednesday 20 August 2003

Special Report on women in the south

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NAIROBI, Aug 20, 2003 (IRIN) — While the international community watches Sudan’s leaders edge closer to a peace deal, the average southern Sudanese woman, although desperate for peace, has more immediate concerns.

Historic under-development, over 20 years of war, and inequalities in traditional power structures have left southern women in a precarious position - they now suffer some of the poorest quality of life indicators in the world.

In some war-affected areas the rate of maternal deaths rises as high as 865 per 100,000 births, according to a UNICEF-sponsored study by Nimila Chawla entitled, "From Survival to Thrival: Children and Women in the Southern Part of Sudan". This compares with a rate of 550 per 100,000 births across the whole of Sudan, as reported in the UN Human Development Report for 2003.

In addition, estimates made by a group of major aid agencies in 1998 suggest the literacy rate among women in parts of southern Sudan could be as low as 10 percent. Even among literate women only a small number have had the luxury of attending secondary school.

Apart from deprivations resulting directly from war and underdevelopment, a drastic reduction in the male population in some areas has placed additional responsibilities on many of the women left behind.

Many southern Sudanese men have joined the armed rebellion and been called away to the front, while still others have left the south in order to gain education and training in the north, or even abroad.

According to United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) estimates the population of Bahr al-Ghazal in 2001 was only about 25 percent male.

The women left behind, who were already largely responsible for keeping the family alive under fraught circumstances, are now shouldering extra burdens in traditional societies that give them a low status, poor access to income-generation activities, few education opportunities, and little or no legal redress.

Marriage problems

It is in the arrangements for marriage that the relative powerlessness of women in many southern Sudanese cultures can be most easily understood. When a young woman gets married, her husband will be required to pay a dowry to her family, usually in the form of heads of cattle. The union is therefore seen primarily as a material transaction between the husband and the woman’s family, rather than a personal bond between husband and wife.

The marriage establishes an alliance between the two families; an alliance which frequently makes divorce for the woman a virtual impossibility as she usually has to gain the support of her own family. Since, in the event of a divorce, her family would have to return the dowry they are very often reluctant to allow the separation to proceed.

"One of the driving cultural premises throughout southern Sudan is that of survival through the redistribution and sharing of wealth. The linchpin for this economic and social dynamic is bride-wealth," states Mary Anne Fitzgerald in a 2002 report on the impact of war on southern Sudanese women. "Thus women are hostage to power structures that are underpinned by material assets," Fitzgerald concludes.

In-keeping with their lowly status, a woman cannot seek divorce without the approval of her family, cannot in some cases seek medical attention without the permission of her husband, and does not generally own property or have an income of her own.

Education the key

Arguably the most crippling disadvantage faced by southern Sudanese women is their limited access to education. Regular schooling is out of reach for most girls as they will be expected to work on household chores such as water collection and grinding grain during normal school hours. Not too long after a girl reaches puberty, she will become eligible for marriage, and once she is married is very unlikely to be able to attend school.

The lack of educated women in southern Sudan is particularly troubling in light of recent progress that has been made towards ending Sudan’s civil war. A peaceful Sudan, particularly in the historically disadvantaged south, will need all the educated people it can muster to provide able doctors, lawyers and teachers and to foster sustainable development.

"Invariably, when women living inside Sudan were asked what was needed to improve their lives, they cited education as the key to advancement", Fitzgerald says.

In education as in the other areas of their lives, women have been disadvantaged both by the war and by traditional attitudes. Insecurity and cycles of displacement have turned regular schooling into nothing more than a pipe dream for many children, whether male or female.

The disparity in school enrolment between boys and girls is huge, and gets wider as one moves through the age-sets. According to the UNICEF ’School Baseline Assessment Report’ for 2002, the gap between girls and boys in primary school enrolment widens from 42 percent in the lowest age-group class, to 59 percent in the highest.

However, some attempts to improve the situation appear to be bearing fruit. A UNICEF-led initiative to build and run village girls schools in Rumbek County, Bahr al-Ghazal, is thought to have raised significantly the enrolment rate of girls in primary education over the last year. Twenty-six such schools are already up and running, with another 10 planning to open their doors to pupils in the coming months.

In an attempt to keep attendance rates high and drop-out rates low, no fees are charged, attendance is only required for three hours per day and, to prevent the arduous journeys which are so often the plight of schoolchildren in rural areas, the girls must live within 15 minutes walk of the school.

The hope is that, after three years attendance at the village schools, girls will have a solid base with which they can continue their education in the local community schools, or maybe in the girls school in Rumbek town.

However, there are still several obstacles to be overcome before girls’ education is thought of as routine in southern Sudan. Girls’ families, and especially their fathers, will have to be convinced that they should be afforded equal status in education with their brothers; that it is worthwhile paying the school fees to educate girls as well as boys.

Also, if women are to eventually force their way into key roles in the administration of the ’New Sudan’ they will need access to secondary education. At the moment, opportunities for secondary schooling for girls in southern Sudan are very limited. For example, although there is a secondary school in Rumbek town, it has very few female pupils enrolled in its classes.

There are signs, however, that attitudes are slowly beginning to change. Some families have realised that an educated girl can be of more value to both her family and to a future husband, as she will be better placed to bring in income and to manage the household affairs. Increasing numbers of people are also becoming aware that education of girls helps to improve the health of the family, especially in reducing the rates of infant, child and maternal mortality.

In the village girls’ school at Cai Agok location, 8-year-old Rebecca Marial is diligently practising her sums in the hope that one day she will be able to complete her education. Who knows, maybe she will become a respected female professional playing a vital role in the rehabilitation and development of a peaceful, prosperous southern Sudan.

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Kind regards,

The Sudan Tribune editorial team.

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