Home | News    Sunday 21 August 2005

Women often take drastic measures to break free

In patriarchal Sudan, where only men can file for divorce, more women are accepting prison time in exchange for a chance at a fresh start.

Aug 21, 2005 (Rumbek) — Crouched in a dank prison ward, Ding Maker admits she broke the law by committing adultery. But she didn’t do it for love, she says. Like many women in jail for infidelity in Sudan, she did it because she wanted a divorce. For three months, she has been sitting in a cell with 12 other women, hoping to shame her husband into repaying her dowry and leaving her.

’’He abused and beat me, never paying for my food or taking care of our sick children,’’ Maker said, adjusting her shiny green shirt over her swelling belly. She is pregnant from the affair, but not worried about it.

’’I had no other way to get divorced,’’ she said. ``I was his second wife and he wasn’t caring for me. I don’t mind staying here. I will just wait.’’

In patriarchal southern Sudan, as in much of Africa, only men have the right to file for divorce. The one legal loophole for Sudanese women is to commit adultery, a crime that is instant grounds for divorce. But even then, most husbands refuse to agree to one because they don’t want to ask their relatives to return the dowry — in Maker’s case, 90 cows — they have received from the bride’s family and distributed as gifts.

All of this, however, could change. Southern Sudan, now at peace after two decades of civil war with the north, is drawing up a new constitution and attempting to craft a modern penal code. With international donors reluctant to aid an entity that jails women for adultery or elopement, its new leaders are reviewing traditional rules regarding marriage, dowry and divorce.

But many women have started defying the rules on their own, in part because they became more independent from men during the civil war, and in part because the political liberation of the region has brought new ideas and influences into a tightly controlled tribal society.

CHALLENGING TRADITION

Virtually all 24 women in Rumbek prison’s female ward are there because they defied customary family laws. More than half have been charged with adultery; the rest have been jailed for eloping or failing to follow traditional marriage rules.

’’With peace and talk of change, adultery and requests for divorce are more frequent than they were ever before,’’ said Chief Justice Ambrose Riny Thiik of South Sudan’s Superior Court. ``In fact, we’re all surprised it’s happening already.’’

But Thiik, 62, wonders if citizens will accept such drastic changes.

In Sudanese society, ’’the couple may not be in love at all,’’ he said.

``These are arranged marriages to create an economic network of family relations. If we change these rules, our entire society could change.’’

According to Akur Ajuoi, a lawyer who works with UNICEF, the push to reject these traditions has been a byproduct of the 21-year war between the Arab-dominated north and the African south. With their husbands away fighting for long periods, women learned to manage their own farms and cattle herds.

’’Now that their husbands are back, they want more rights,’’ Ajuoi said. ``There is also a lot of influence from the outside. Times are changing and women are getting enlightened. As much as we want to say that traditions are nice and are going to stay, we should leave the harmful ones behind.’’

Ajuoi is an example of the new outside influences. A war refugee, she was educated in Kenya and South Africa, both more modern countries where women can obtain a divorce in the courts.

Many educated Sudanese coming home to rebuild their country have very different ideas than their grandparents. Ajuoi is also working on a measure that would make it illegal for parents to keep children out of school, even to work with crops or cattle.

But she said laws involving women may be hardest to change, largely because of money.

Payment of dowry cattle is at the heart of the region’s economy.

``It may be easier to get rights for children than to get women’s rights.

’’Children are viewed as gifts, whereas women are seen as having a monetary worth because of the dowry,’’ Ajuoi said.

Conservative lawyers working on the new constitution argue that putting a woman in jail for adultery is practical and that many customary laws were built upon popular opinions of what is morally correct for society.

’’To be very frank, it’s an important preventive measure to protect a woman from getting killed,’’ said one of those lawyers, William Ajal Deng. ``Not all of our customary laws are bad. Divorce, in my opinion, should rarely be permitted at all. It’s a bad thing for children.’’

BIASED SYSTEM

But others see the traditional system as biased against women.

Under customary laws, a woman or man who commits adultery must pay a fine, usually amounting to seven cows or about $800.

Those who cannot pay serve six months in jail.

But there are no cases of any men being put in Rumbek prison for adultery, because they own cows and land and can afford the fines, said Cmdr. Benjamin Jok, who runs the facility.

BY EMILY WAX
The Miami Herald