Ajah Atong Ajok (Photo credit: Facebook)

The Invisible Women of South Sudan

By Ajah Atong Ajok

Ajah Atong Ajok (Photo credit: Facebook)
Ajah Atong Ajok (Photo credit: Facebook)

Gender shouldn’t determine whether a person gets an education. Unfortunately, in South Sudan it does.  Women in South Sudan are the most disadvantaged and invisible segment of the population; historically, they have been unable to attend school, and they continue to experience such unequal access to education as of this year. In the 21st century, this is unacceptable and the trajectory of harm and impact caused by this inequity needs to change. Education plays an important role in shaping individuals and societies’ values, identities, and relationships, and lack of education among South Sudanese women has prevented them from defining their roles in every aspect of life, including their rights and freedoms, socio-economic and political status, and even their independence. Education also helps us with personal hygiene skills, and may even help change the way we think. South Sudanese women need education, empowerment and political and cultural support systems in order to achieve all these important goals.
This paper sheds some light on the problem of women’s illiteracy in South Sudan. It examines structural factors, customary and traditional practices and economic barriers that hinder women’s contribution to education, highlights violations of women’s rights, and explores what needs to be done about it.
South Sudan became the world’s 193rd nation after it conducted a successful referendum for independence from Sudan in 2011. As a new country, it has experienced tremendous challenges, from equality in education to fostering economic development. Tragically, the challenges to creating equal access to education affect women in South Sudan in many ways. In a culture that has to tolerate political and domestic dominance and abuse of women by South Sudanese men, a lack of education has led to high level of poverty and low self-esteem among women.
The People’s Republic of South Sudan is emerging as the world youngest independent nation with many opportunities for educated and uneducated people alike. For this new independent nation, improving the equality in education, health, and economic prosperity of all South Sudanese citizens should be the first priority now.
The problem of Invisibility
The illiteracy rate in South Sudan is 80%, out of which 90% are women (Joseph).  For a country with 3.79 million female, 90% in a raw statistics amount to roughly 3.573 million female who don’t have direct access to any form of education (Statistical Consultants Ltd). This leaves only 397 thousand women who can read or write at some capacity. Such a high level of illiteracy among the women of South Sudan is unacceptable as literacy is the key to life’s change. The causes of illiteracy among South Sudanese women require careful examination, as does what would be done to promote women’s literacy across South Sudan.
The cause of illiteracy is found in the legacy of cultures, customs and traditions which have been used as reasons to oppress and\or deny women access to education (Ali). In South Sudanese society, the traditional role of the women as a housekeeper and a mother is still common. Traditionally, according to the South Sudanese from almost every tribe that makes up the country, women believe they are attached to South Sudanese men as mothers, wives, daughters and sisters.  Women are expected to only become mothers and wives and never to question men’s authority. A daughter can be forced to marry against her will and be denied work outside the home, she may not be allowed to attend school (Benjamin).
All these negative practices or social expectation in the name of culture have robbed women of South Sudan of their humanity and educational opportunities. Thus, women have become accustomed to social life as dictated by social institutions engineered to favor men at the expenses of women‘s education or career opportunities.
Furthermore, gender distinctions were traditionally essential features of the familial hierarchy. All these lead to the method of marriage in South Sudan, which only favors men. According to the South Sudan child Act 2008, a marriageable age for a woman has been established, but without enforcement and legal protections, it may as well not exist. It doesn’t exist for 11, 14 or 16 year old girls who get married by forced, their marriages are determine by their parents.  This is against their will, but they can’t refuse as there is no alternative and no system of protection to intervene.
Wealth is the driving mechanism of forced marriage. The institution of marriage can also be viewed as an economic, social and political affair. One of the most factors contributing to early and forced marriage is poverty. Difficult economic conditions facing many south Sudanese families, particularly those who are living in rural areas or in low income neighborhood of urban South Sudan favor early marriage for girls. It is argued that many families experiencing economic hardships often times marry off their daughters to wealthy men to cope with their financial difficulties, or gain access to wealth through payment of bride wealth by the family of the groom to be to that of the girl. (Edward)  These payments are made in term of money, cattle, goats among pastoralist and iron, goal, copper among the agriculturalist.  Marriage and bride payment is common among all South Sudanese tribes. These child marriages have dire consequences for the young women. According to South Sudanese Women Empowerment a direct cause of maternal mortality in South Sudan is child marriage.
“Young girls, often before their bodies are fully formed, are particularly vulnerable to complications in pregnancy and childbirth. Statistics proved maternal mortality rates among young girls to be very high. South Sudan has a long practiced tradition and customs of child marriage where girls are married as young as eleven years. Child marriage has major implications for the education of girls, and for the overall well-being of the country. Though a marriageable age is specified in the South Sudan Child Act 2008, it is not specified in the Transitional Constitution and South Sudanese authorities need to put in place a basic legal structure that allows protection and safeguards for girls who try to resist, often with great courage, being forced into marriages against their will(SSWE).”
Biologically, these little girls’ bodies are not yet developed to carry and deliver babies, but children are forced into sexual relationships as early as possible by old grown men. Sadly, many of these girls die before or after birth from heavy bleeding and other complications. In spite of these tragic outcomes, the tradition of forced, early marriage continues in most of South Sudan and it is still being practiced as of this day.
Other problems faces South Sudanese women are gender violence and its impact on women.  The sexual violence that women in South Sudan endure during the war , in conflict areas  and as refugees and displaced  persons  received little  documentation or reporting (Ali)  According to the International Rescue committee (IRC) Assessment done in Yida, an informal camp of refugees who fled from the Nuba mountain, across the border in Sudan , a great number of women and girls in the camp were raped on a daily basis, but were afraid  to report it, knowing that  if they did, nothing would be done (IRC) . Not only  did the women feel that nothing would be done  if they report to the authority that they were being raped , but in their traditionally culture ,South Sudanese women who are raped are viewed or looked at as ones with low values and are rarely find men who will marry them. This   knowledge create fear in women, keeping them painfully silent about reporting such horrible acts (IRC) Violence against women and young girl is both tragic and a humanitarian crisis that will continue to affect South Sudan in general. It is a massive problem that has a severe impact on South Sudanese women’s physical health, mental stability and wellbeing. Yet, its existence is seldom discussed because South Sudanese women lack intellectual advocates that can deliver their problems to the public, lack of self-esteem and  voice made these issue go unheard.
The United Nation special report on human rights in South Sudan stated that Human rights monitors working in South Sudan documented 21 rapes in just one region; these took place in a period between September 2007 to January 2008 in one region, and among the victims, many were children (United Nation).
These problems, and the silence that accompanies them, have their cost particular in a country with poor or non-existence health care. Most victim’s encounter depression and trauma, as well as the disease that come with raping   process; these conditions remain untreated. South Sudan has very poor health facilities all over the country. There few if any good doctors or readily accessible medicines in all ten states of South Sudan (Edward).
As a result, victims suffer from many sexual transmitted diseases (STDs) often living with until they die. Many endure unplanned pregnancies and suffer during pregnancy from sickness, starvation, poverty, and neglect.  In fact the society doesn’t value rape victims, they are unable to marry because no man needs a woman who isn’t virgin, their children continue to suffer from diseases and hunger too. (Ali)
Need for Women in The government
South Sudan women’s positions in the government are very few. The lack of women’s representatives in higher offices suggests a lack of recognition about the roles women should play in creating policies that will impact their lives. When this lack of political representation is enforced, then opportunity to propose important legislation that protects women in every aspect of South Sudanese society disappears, contributing to an unjust society even when legislation is enacted, society still needs women to share their experiences to make sure that the laws are enforced or amendments are meaningful.
Currently there are ten states in South Sudan, out of which only one has a woman as a governor. In South Sudan constitution, there is a provision, which allocates twenty five percent of positions to women when establishing a new government (Ali). This provision is barely met whenever a new parliament is formed. One of the justifications has always been that there are not enough qualified women to occupy these competitive positions (Ali).  There is a strong link between the education of women and the increased presence of’’ qualified ‘’women in society and government.
This situation demonstrates why the government of South Sudan should invest in educating women to occupy these positions, creating access to participation with fewer barriers.  Addressing education first will be helping the flow of the systems without difficulties. By doing nothing to correct these problems, the government of South Sudan is not only excluding women from their rightful participation, but also contributing to the unfair treatment of women across the country.
Women and the justice system
The structural judiciary of South Sudan is comprised of Supreme Court, Court of appeal, high court and county court. Constitutions of South Sudan contain few provisions or fully detailed mechanisms to address physical and \or domestic violence against women. Wife beating is considered normal in South Sudanese society, a man has right to beat his wife because he paid dowries during the marriage and it is just because of simple mistake like refuse to cook, clean, or question his authority.(Edward).
However, One of the serious challenges has been lack of willingness to report abuses to authorities, as mentioned above, women and young girl cannot even report incidences like rape or physical abuse because they are ashamed and even when they do, and men have been found not guilty in much account (Edward).  Another big issue is lack of financial resources from women to appeal to court since women in South Sudan are the most disadvantaged group. Additionally, given the high illiteracy rates among women, some women might not be aware of their legal right as granted by the constitutions.
Women’s Subservience leads to poverty and Abuse
Another major problem facing South Sudanese woman is poverty. South Sudan had been in a war for 27 years and this has raised the rate of poverty among all Sudanese, but the most disadvantaged and unfortunate groups are women. 90% of the poor population in South Sudan is women (Jack) . The insecurity and corruption in the government are thought to be increasing the rate of poverty in South Sudan. (Jack).
Female headed -house has a poverty incidence that is a percentage point higher than male headed –households and at all level of income, female earn lower or zero income compared to their male counterparts (Shemily and Audrey). Discrimination and prejudice against South Sudanese women is a constant problem in their daily life, contributing to their low level of income. Most of these women lost their husbands during the war, and without the financial support of spouses, they are dealing with poverty and health issues on daily basis.
As well, many south Sudanese girls have ended up in the hands of husbands who commit systematic domestic violence against their young wives (South Sudanese women empowerment).  The abuse are often unpunished due to social and cultural institutions that have been built up over time and made women believe  that physical violence against them is a normal part of their daily life. As a result, most women especially the ones who have not gone to school, have settled for a mediocre life surrounded by domestic violence and deprivation of basic defense or ‘’freedom of expression’’ South Sudanese women of all ages depend upon husbands, and due to a lack of education, do not question these injustices, or else they do not have any means of supporting themselves.
In South Sudan culture, one man is permitted to marry many wives as long as he has dowries to pay a bride price, although instead of supporting one wife and kids, these men choose to marry more wives, leaving their family starve (Ali). Since girls are viewed as asset and a source of income to their families, a girl’s parents will choose for her bridegroom whoever has established wealth (South Sudanese Women empowerment), this system has contributed to health crises in Sudanese society. Polygamy is a casual factor of sexually transmitted diseases (Edward). Polygamous men spread diseases from one woman to another, sexually transmitted diseases  do not only affects mothers but also their unborn babies, a grave concern considering there are so few health facilities in many towns of South Sudan, many people- some of their children die every day because of this unchallenged practice.
Until recently, divorce among South Sudanese was rare because so many women lacked the power to stand up for themselves or had the courage to walk away from dysfunctional relationships. Today, some marriages are ending up in divorce, but the law in South Sudan suggests that women walk away empty handed (Ali) if the couple has children, the full custody of the children is awarded to their father automatically because he paid dowries during their wedding ceremony.
South Sudanese women are not allowed to inherit wealth ( Faria and Erickson). When a Sudanese woman’s husband dies, his brother takes over the family and he controls his deceased brother’s assets including his wife or wives (Edward) if the wife is young and still wants to have children, the brother of her dead husband will bear children with her and the children will be assigned to the dead man’s name. Inheritance rights for the wife are not practiced in most of South Sudan, the exception are tribes such as Dinka, Nuer, Shilluk and few others (Ali).
Hence, the question becomes, how long would it take to start treating women with dignity? And how can individual and society combat the problem of domestic violence and gender inequalities against women in South Sudan? Personally I’m concerned if we don’t fight this battle now, it might become part of the fabric of the new nation. Therefore, I argue that South Sudan’s government, in partnership with United Nation, Human’s Right activists, UNHCR, South Sudan Women’s empowerment organization and many others need to help the people of South Sudan build inclusive educational systems in order to build an inclusive country that treats all its citizens equally.
To begin with, concerned parties must re-exams cultural barriers which have been at the center of this problem. This needn’t result in a total abandonment of South Sudanese cultures, but it should do away with aspects of cultures that do not contribute to the goal of equality. A society built on notion of equality would not condone men beating up their wives or killing them just because they don’t agree with them, nor would it accept the practice of forcing girls to marry old men against their wills. In a culture of equality, girls would attend school and women would pursue careers outside homes. Ignoring these fundamental rights will continue to breed indignities and inequalities.
Instead of hanging on to these detrimental aspects of cultures, people and communities across South Sudan need to be empowered to promote only traditions and customs that empower women, new traditions that promote equality and dignity of all genders in all aspects of life. Of course, this would require radical approach given cultural rigidity that has built up over time. This is where education, advocacy, a better societal understanding of the harm of ignorance will help bring about cultural change, this change will be achieved if the society\communities members including men, chiefs and elders join in the move together with the government, and change would be achieved.
I argue that times have changed and so should cultures and traditions that don’t respect human’s rights and human dignity. All forms of women rights violations reflect a belief in treating girls as commodities to be sold.
Getting South Sudanese families out of poverty should be the first move; The South Sudanese Government must create more jobs and provides welfare. Large population in South Sudan is living in poverty and economic crisis at the moment. Therefore, provision of resources would not only solve economic issues but it will also reduce incidences of forced marriages since girls are sold for dowries and other wealth. Putting an end to starvation and poverty will encourage families of the girls to refrain from forceful marriage activities and instead, encourage girls to go to school (Edward).  Countries like Kenya, South Africa and many other countries don’t believe in dowries and they are in doing greater than South Sudan.
Right now there a few organization and programs such as South Sudanese women Empowerment (Faria and Erickson), Partnership against Violence and Exploitation (PAVE) and Girl not Bride that are fighting against child bride practices in central areas such as Yambio, Maridi and Juba, these organizations have been very successful in getting girls to schools, however more programs and organizations are needed; these organizations must have branches in areas such as Bor, upper Nile region, and Lake State where dowries are the income of the families.
South Sudan must provide scholarships and fund appropriate organizations in order to run these projects smoothly and for these girls to continue with their education. The government of South Sudan must also build an organization to overseas the enactment of the South Sudan child; although it is not specified in the transitional constitution, South Sudanese authorities must put in place a basic legal structure that  allow  protection and safeguards for young girls who refuse to marry against their will. That law must protect them.
If conditions for women are to improve, then primary, secondary schools, colleges and universities have to develop curricula that are inclusive and in which human rights are emphasized. These curricula should include courses on how to address domestic violence and implement ways to stop a force marriage. These educational programs must contain components and \or means that empower and educate women to realize that their currents position in the society is unacceptable, unjust, and has to improve or change.
Education at all levels is necessary because the present social and cultural institutions that have been built up over time have made not only women, but also men believe that physical violence against women is an unacceptable part of their daily life. As a result, most women, especially ones who have not gone to school have settled for mediocre life surrounded by domestic violence and deprivation of educational opportunities in a national educational system that put emphasis on respect of human rights, young girls would learn about their individual rights and develop their own ways to challenge the cultural status that has oppressed them for generation.
Hope is, as more young women are exposed to their rights; they would be more willing to stand up to abusive men who commit such gross violation against them. Not only that, as young women become more informed, they would learn of community resources like school authorities and\ or school counselors to whom they can report their abusers for investigations and prosecutions. Such programs have worked well in the developed world where thousands of men are now sitting behind bars because someone reported their abuser to the right authorities (Erickson). These systems worked very well in western countries like United State, Australia and some other develop countries in Africa.
Educated men in and outside South Sudan have special responsibility. In every house hold in South Sudan, there is at least one male figure that can be educated on women’s issues and how to address them. Think about how much change we can make if every male in every household treats his female relatives with dignity and respect. Educated men have a duty to become the leaders of an anti-violence movement that advocates respect and dignity of all people. An Educated man should have received an education that allow him to stop seeing as investment banks, and instead to see his sister or daughter first as his loving independent human who is deserving of mutual respect. It is my belief  that when the South Sudanese men begin to see women in this light, South Sudan will at last be in a position to challenge the dowry- thirsty, the incentive that drives young girls into force marriages in so many communities. AS a result, no girl or daughter would be beaten or subjected to physical abuse or denied access to education because she is a woman.
Currently, there are no good hospitals in South Sudan that can provide care to women and families, A large percentage of women die during child birth due to lack of  medical equipment or facilities(SSWE) , As well, rape victims cannot find adequate treatment. To address these and other issues, the South Sudanese government should provide health facilities by building hospitals, they should also create an educational program that will educate citizens and health care workers on health and hygiene and teach women the importance of hygiene and how to care for their children. This will reduce the high rates of preventable diseases that are killing children in the country (Jok).
Lastly, government of South Sudan should create a law and amendment that put force marriage, polygamy, under-age marriage and rape as illegal and they should be treated as crime across the country. Breaking single of these should result into imprisoning or sentence for a certain duration of time.
It is undeniable that South Sudanese cultures are sources of pride and dignity. However, generational and cultural mistakes have been made at the expense of South Sudanese women of all ages. Unlike some other countries in the world, South Sudanese communities have weathered cultural evolution. Although this represents a possible gain for that society, it has proved tragic for progressives who would like to see a more open society where both men and women enjoy the same rights and cultural privileges. Given the recent political transformation that led to the independence of South Sudan, it is fitting that people and their communities should start by nurturing a culture that promotes humanity and collective good.
It should be noted with urgency that empowering women in South Sudan must involve many fronts and an agenda of transformation across the country. This movement has to start by empowering girls and women both academically and socially. On matters of education, a curriculum that adopts and facilitates girls programs of empowerment has to be first priority. South Sudan must provide scholarships for girls to study at home and abroad so that they may broaden their perspectives on common issues affecting them and their counterparts around the world. This incorporation and focus on gender rights and awareness in education would serve as an important tool, strengthening girls and women’s opportunities. It time for an initiative to offer support and free mentoring programs to girls to accelerate their education at all levels and strengthen effective networking on matters of self-empowerment and competitiveness; these efforts will prepare them to determine and defend their rights and freedom. Implementation and success of the above mention tools would also strengthen the democratic development across South Sudan in a manner that protects equality and respects the dignity of persons in all aspects of that society.
Finally, women, especially those who are informed or educated, should find courage and call for social activism to challenge malevolent prejudices against them. Without women participation in this process of social activism, the fight for woman right in South Sudan may not be easily won given the status quo-as maintained through communal or tribal traditions. No matter who we are, a son or a daughter, a mother or a father, uncle or aunt, wife or husband, a feminism or chauvinist, a stronger South Sudan must be one where girls and women decide what is good for them, their families and indeed the whole nation. Let us, the people of South Sudan, join hands to chart a new direction of empowerment, equality and protection of all women in our country.

Work cited.

  1. Ali, M.N. Gender and state-building in South Sudan. Report No 298, United States Institute of Peace, Report No 298, (2011). Retrieved May 9, 2015,
  1. Edward, K.J. A strategy for achieving gender equality in South Sudan. The SUDD INSTITUTE, Special Report (2), (2014). Retrieved May 9, 2015, Faria Caroline, Erickson Jenifer,  We want empowerment for our women”: Transnational Feminism, Neoliberal Citizenship, and the Gendering ofWomen’s Political Subjectivity in Postconflict South Sudan, 2011 by The University of Chicago. May 9,2015.
  1. Jack, E. A. “Education is my mother and father”: The “invisible” women of Sudan. Canada’s Journal of Refuges, (27)2, (2012). Retrieved May 9, 2015:Joseph, T. Baseline study on the status of women in the new Sudan: Report for Mundri and Yei counties, Western Equatoria, Southern Sudan. United States Aid Institute Development (USAID), (2004). Retrieved May 9, 2015, from:.
  1. Statistical Consultants Ltd. Statistics about South Sudan, (2011). Retrieved May 9, 2015, 2015,. UNICEF. Socio-economic and cultural barriers to schooling in Southern Sudan. Government of South Sudan, Ministry of Education, Science & Technology, (2008). Retrieved May 9, 2015, from:

4 thoughts on “The Invisible Women of South Sudan

  1. It is too early for S. Sudanese women to complain about the injustice and rights while the country is still at war with somebody unidentified and identified. For now, it is better to encourage yourselves to pursue education. Many of you who are educated work in the government of S.Sudan. I think what matter is insecurity not employment or political position. South Sudan never been in peace since the agreement between the North and the South Sudan. Let me remind you about the norms or cultures, it is our identity like the skin that we should not changed. It’s like identification documents. Don’t stab it too much. we might remain with nothing to protect ourselves. I think we are changing now little by little from our extreme cultures but it should not be removed at all in the life.

  2. Ajaa atong this is damn long. I only can properly read and understand short articles. Anyway, I scanned it. Both women and men have some work to do here because women and men are not independent from each other. They are interdependent.
    Men: must stop domestic violence special physical punishment. This is inhumane, it do not really solve the problems that might lead to it.I believe too there is nothing wrong with taking turn cooking and cleaning the hourse as long as it might give a woman some free time to rest but not to go to downtown for party. Men should also give women technical education to deal with social economic issues. I hear from my sister and my sisters in laws that our males society back how is now like turkana males society where males do nothing and females do everythings. If we have to dependent on women economically we must give them the right tools not just giving them kids and leave them Lone.

    Women.our educated women must not abandon us. Majority of our educated women do not respect our cultural/ social norms. They claim that they own themselves, therefore not accountable to anybody except themselves. That thinking is not right. We belong to the society and we must be accountable to our society.remember ladies, education is a investment. This mean the investor must get the original invested property back which is you and return on investment which is education”s benefits.investor will feel rip off if both investment and return on investment are not realise.new investors will also be discouraged not to invest.Time now for the few educated women to show that they belong to us not to themseives and foreigners.respect our culture and together we can work out the changes particularly in our dinka bor community just to start.

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