International Women’s Day: Promotion of our Women Rights vs. Preservation of our Cultural Heritage

By PaanLuel Wël, Washington DC, USA

“Women in [South] Sudan are the marginalized of the marginalized people”—Dr. John Garang.

March 15, 2011 (SSNA) — March 8th of every year is marked, all over the world by women, as International Women’s Day (IWD). Established and first observed on 28 February 1909 in the United States, International Women’s Day today is, to quote Wikipedia, both a “celebration for women’s economic, political and social achievements” and a “political and social awareness of the struggles of women worldwide” in a man dominated world.

South Sudanese women, similarly to their counterparts all over the world, converged at Nyakuron Culture Center in Juba to commemorate this year IWD under the banner of “Equal Access to Education, Training, Science and Technology: Pathway to Decent Work for Women.” Most importantly, a lot of emphasis was placed on the direct relationship between girl-child education and the attainment of women rights and freedoms in South Sudan.

That girl-child education and empowerment was the backdrop of the March 8th IWD celebration did not come across as a surprise to any keen observer of South Sudanese affairs considering all the tragic news the media has been spewing about the rampant impregnations of minors, forced marriages of schoolgirls and early marriages of the underage girls across the country.

It would be worthwhile, therefore, to have a closer look at the compiled data, in the words of the reporters, mainly drawn from Sudan Tribune and, who observed and reported the incidents. It is to be noted though that this data covered only three months: between December 2010 through March 1st, 2011. You can then extrapolate the magnitude of the real problem if only this short period of time has this so much going on:

March 1, 2011: One 18-year-old girl (Akoy Madol Alier) was killed, another one (Akot Ngong) was seriously injured in dispute with family over bridegroom choice.

February 25, 2011: A key police officer in the minister of internal affairs of the government of south Sudan denied Friday allegations of rape of female police recruits and physical abuse during a year-long police training period in Juba.

February 24, 2011: A Sudanese female activist has appeared bare-faced in a Youtube video and claimed that she was raped by three members of Sudan’s National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS).

The 24-year-old Safiya Eshaq, a member of an anti-government youth group known as Grifna, said she was kidnapped, assaulted and gang-raped by plain-clothed security men on February 13th, nearly two weeks after she participated in anti-government protests.

February 22, 2011: Sudanese security authorities have employed several forms of gender-based violence, including rape, against female activists who took part in recent anti-government campaigns, a local right group said on.

Girls dropping out of education in Rumbek: many girls leaving school before finishing their studies, local culture is one of the factors cited as a cause of high dropout rate of girls from schools.

Officials within the ministry of education talked of teachers who have either married minors or married off their underage daughters.

February 11, 2011: A girl from Rumbek North County, Agok Monyman Apach, was beaten to death by her uncle’s son in a dispute over her forced marriage. The girl is reported to have been killed after she demanded to be given ivory jewelry, a symbol of marital status in Dinka culture, before the wedding.

January 14, 2011: Police in Rumbek, the capital of Lakes state in Southern Sudan beat up women who wearing trousers and young men with long hair on Friday. Lakes state police in forcibly cut the hair of men.

January 4, 2011: A 13-year old girl, Nyandiar Makur Kachuol, a 5th grade student at Bar-aliep Primary school, was beaten to death by a gang of brothers and relatives over pregnancy allegation.

In 2010: A female student belonging to Atiaba Secondary School in Rumbek East County was beaten to death by her parents over pregnancy allegations.

September 2010: A 16 year old, Form one student at Hope and Resurrection Secondary School, Martha Athou Lueth, was beaten to death by her father when she got pregnant.

In 2010: Nyikada Ngoki, a primary school pupil in Wulu County committed suicide in October after being forced into a marriage she didn’t consent to.

In 2010: Another girl from in Wulu County committed suicide in order to avoid being forced to marry a much older man.

These occurrences, among others have, compelled some judges to adopt radical reinterpretations of the penal code. The President of the High Court in Lakes state, Judge Raimondo Legge, has incarcerated about 58 young men in custody for impregnating underage schoolgirls. Though impregnating a girl who has reached puberty age is not a crime in almost all cultures of South Sudan, Judge Raimondo Legge is nevertheless threatening to put behind bars those young men for 25 years as an example to the rest who might be contemplating the same crime.

So what or who is to blame for all these seemingly societal meltdown on the eve of the long awaited independence on July 9th, 2011? The main culprit is, of course, a culture that undermines and disregards women interest in preferences for men’s. These cultural imbalances, fashioned and fostered by historical, customary and traditional predispositions and prejudices, are based on and perpetuated by a patriarchical society where men’s interests, desires and whims are not only the cherished rules and norms but also the yardstick of measuring societal conducts.

Unsurprisingly, this trend has generated numerous lopsided customs in which cultural practices undermine and endanger the rights and lives of women folks. The consequential outcome is a cultural disparity where women are to be seen but not heard, used and abused but never accorded due respect and/or justice.

Wives, for instance, live at the mercy of their husband, having bought them like marketable goods in a local market. They own nothing in their names that they could lay claim to in case of a divorce; not even their own offsprings for the children are solely own by and name after the man’s family.

More dehumanizingly, the girl has no absolute say in how and to who she get marry to: that is the exclusive domain of the clan elders, uncles, brothers and fathers whose guiding motivation is not the interest of the lady but the amount of dowry the suitors avail or promise them in exchange for the lady.

However, the main overarching umbrella under which all these male subjectivities and partialities converge and materialize into an enforceable and perpetuatable form is the dowry-based customary marriage institution. Take the Dinka community, for example, the bride price reportedly ranges from 30 to 300 heads of cattle with one cow roughly going for one thousand Sudanese pound or about $350 US dollars, current market price.

For a Dinka or a Nuer man who had paid such an exorbitant price for a wife, what kind of gender equality can you teach him as far as women right and freedom are concern? Not much because a woman, his wife, is just but one part of the property he had painstakingly acquired over long period of   conscientious time and now owns alongside other possessions such as his prized bulls, herd of cattle, traditional spear, granary of grains and the gun he uses to protect his herd of cattle from rustlers.

The fact of the matter though is that women themselves have got nothing to do with the very bride price that has become the embodiment of their enslavement. For whatever exchange hands, those 300 heads of cattle, during the marriage ceremony is a male-male transaction that women have no control over nor are they participants of. It is one male paying another one with women playing the role of a tradable goods. Faulting womenfolk for their predicaments in the name of “men pay the dowry” would tantamount to blaming the slaves for their enslavement (instead of the ones who enslaved them against their wills).

Therefore, even if men might pitch their claim of gender superiority within the home on the dowry theory, it is not a valid argument since the transaction does not benefit the woman in any conceivable way. Yet at the same time, it is hard to reconcile the naked fact of the matter: no law or policy can successfully instill and achieve real gender equity in a relationship where one party (the husband) has to part with over 300 heads of cattle in order to obtain the right to marry his bride. Put it differently, gender equity and bride price based marriage system are incompatible. One has to be sacrifice so as to realize the other! So what do we do? Robbing Peter to pay Paul?

Dissimilar tentative resolutions to this quagmire have been proposed and recommended by three schools of thoughts. The first school of thought, whose constituents are the center-moderates, highly educated but not too liberal sections of the South Sudanese society, call for the abolition of the dowry-based marriage institution that renders women as property of menfolk. These groups hope to achieve their demands through the formulation and enactment of constitutional law in the South Sudan Legislative Assembly (SSLA) that would outlaw and abolish bride price marriage system.

They further argue that payment of dowry not only degrade and malign womanhood but also encourage cattle rustlings among men who carry out cattle raids and rustlings to acquire the obligatory 30-300 heads of cattle to pay the bride price. These accordingly destabilize the region since it contributes to ethnic tensions and unnecessary wars and killings that undermine peace and development in South Sudan. It is to this group of thinkers that Judge Raimondo Legge, The President of the High Court in Lakes state, is the darling of the people and the crusader of human rights.

The second school of thought takes offense of the argument advance by the first school of thought terming it as a piecemeal implementation of the long deferred civil liberties of all South Sudanese people. Why only women’s rights, they wonder, and yet all people and every citizens of this great country—lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transsexuals (LGBT), commercial sex workers, children, animals etc—deserve these inalienable rights and freedom too? This second school of thought is composed of small minority of highly educated liberal South Sudanese, many of whom are currently based in the West. To this group of thinkers, Judge Raimondo Legge’s actions sound nothing more than a blandishment.

The third school of thought, though they condemn the killing of girls, still refuses to advocate the abolition of dowry-based marriage system. And nor do they back full adaptation of an all-out rights and freedom for all citizens arguing that it would be equivalent to the westernization of South Sudanese societies.

This third school of thought, exclusively made up of the conservatives and the traditionalists, assert that any abolition of bride price marriage would lead to killing of our cultural heritage and the opening of a floodgate of cultural decadence e.g prostitution, divorce, single parenthood, promiscuity, infidelity, fornication, bastardization, LGBT—name them—as it is in the West. For them, the only security and guarantee against these cultural breakdowns is the continuation and the appreciation of the bride price marriage system even if at the expenses of a certain section of the society.

It is this group that has been highly infuriated by the actions of Judge Raimondo Legge who is criminalizing the impregnation of young schoolgirls contrary to the customary law. To the conservatives and the traditionalists, Judge Raimondo Legge who is planning to imprison nearly 60 young men for impregnating underage schoolgirls, is only problematizing a normal situation which is better handle by the Dinka customary penal code. What they see is a man-bashing tactics concealed in a law being presided over by a westernized man who has little respect for nor the understanding of the ways of life among the Dinka people of Lake State.

So, given these horrific statistics and the three arguments for and against women rights and the abolition of the dowry-based marriage system, is there a trade-off between the promotion of our women rights and freedoms versus the preservation of our African cultural heritage? Is it impossible to realize the rights of a girl-child without first abolishing the dowry system of marriage? Can the girl-child enjoy her uninhibited freedom in the present of the dowry system?

Or, as the second school of thinkers argues above, is it even fair to talk of women rights while neglecting and shunning the rights of LGBT and prostitutes amongst us? How about children or animals rights? I mean where is the line and who has the final say upon where it should be? Who has the authority to decide for us all: moderates, liberal or the conservatives? Will they ever agree to agree or they doom to agree to disagree?

Is it the case that the banishing of dowry-based marriage institution will erode cultural heritage and usher in cultural decadence characterize by prostitution, divorce, single parenthood, promiscuity, infidelity, fornication, bastardization, LGBT as the die-hard traditionalists claim? Is legislation in the SSLA the right way to safeguard the rights, freedom, and lives of the girl-child or are cultural penal codes and norms sufficient enough to protect and promote the freedoms and lives of the girl-child and women?

But wait a minute, how worse off is a South Sudanese woman and a girl-child, say, in comparison to their counterparts in the rest of Sub-Saharan African countries? Not too bad at all if we are to believe the recent speech delivered by Dr. Machar, the Vice President of South Sudan, during this year International Women’s Day, Tuesday, 8th March, 2011.

In fact, besides the constitutionally guaranteed “at least 25%” feminine representations across all level of governance in South Sudan, Dr. Machar revealed to the gathering of women delegations that “feminine membership [in South Sudan] has [now] increased from 25% to 28.5% in the recent Elections in both legislature and executive bodies.”

And nor are women left behind in executive leadership for, as Dr. Machar put it, they constitute about twenty percent of Ministers, one in ten of State Governors and one third of Undersecretaries in the current Government of Southern Sudan (GoSS).

Owing to these statistical facts, Dr. Machar inferred that, “Southern Sudan [is] now ranking in the top ten African countries in terms of Women’s representation in Parliament.” That is a rosy picture, isn’t it? Yes, except that Dr. Machar, being a politician, can’t be expected to paint a lesser picture than that on as an important day as the International Women Day commemoration.

Still, South Sudan, though at the bottom of the least developed countries in the entire world and currently the last nation to achieve independence in the Sub-Saharan Africa, is not at the bottom when it comes to women rights and the girl-child education and empowerment.

Our interim constitution, like in most countries in the world, has instituted a clause about affirmative action—a politically correct term for a positive discrimination. We have women ministers, governors, parliamentarians, Judges, lecturers and professors, PhD holders and even founding members of the SPLM/A such as Madam Nyandeng de Mabioor etc.

That is a good start for a new nation on a new mission to unshackle the marginalization of the “marginalized of the marginalized people” in the immortal words of Dr. John Garang. Therefore, liberate the marginalized of the marginalized people and you liberate the whole country; educate and empower the girl-child and you educate and empower the entire country!

You can reach PaanLuel Wël at   [email protected], Facebook, or through his blog at:

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