By Tony Calderbank

25 September 2013 - 12:52

'South Sudan's women are more likely to die in childbirth than complete primary school.'
'South Sudan's women are more likely to die in childbirth than complete primary school.' Photo ©

Oxfam East Africa, licensed under CC-BY-2.0 and adapted from the original.

High illiteracy rates and rigid gender roles are just two of the many challenges for the women of South Sudan. Tony Calderbank, the British Council’s director in South Sudan, writes about their position in local society, and how the British Council is providing training to help them overcome some of the barriers they face.

According to some myths, the defeat of matriarchy came about with the advent of animal husbandry, and the awareness it entails of the connection between sex and procreation. Man’s knowledge of his own power to impregnate brought with it the desire and need to control the sexuality of women. Woman’s mystery receded.

Today in South Sudan, women’s lives are still inextricably linked to livestock. Wealthy men with large herds of cattle marry several women. The menfolk of a clan pool their livestock to secure a choice bride for their male relatives. If a young woman ‘reveals herself’ to her lover, the only way forward is for her to move in with his family, and for them to send her brothers and uncles some cows.

The African poet Okot p’Bitek’s great poem, The Defence of Lawino, is about a traditional African woman resisting Western ways. It’s written in Acholi, a language spoken by the Acholi people who straddle the border of Uganda and South Sudan. The poem’s heroine Lawino describes herself in her youth like this:

'At the time Ochol was still wooing me

My breasts stood at ninety degrees

I walked like the crane: neck up in the air

My brothers were full of praise, calling me ‘Bringer-of-Cows’

For the rhythm of my breasts beckoned bride wealth:

Prepare the kraal

Prepare the kraal

The cows are coming.' (Translation from Acholi by Taban lo Liyong)

Few South Sudanese women are educated

South Sudan’s population is 83 per cent rural. Most people live as farmers and pastoralists without electricity, roads, banks, telephone networks and the other trappings of modern society. Women are more likely to die in childbirth than complete primary school. Out of a population of eight million, there are no more than a couple of thousand girls completing secondary education. Around 90 per cent of South Sudan’s women are illiterate, compared with 75 per cent of men.

Traditional tribal gender roles are rigid. Women occupy the private space and do not assume roles of leadership and decision-making in the public sphere. If there are financial constraints in a family with a son and daughter, then it is most likely the boy who goes to school. Girls who do begin primary school hardly ever finish. They are often taken out when they reach puberty for fear of molestation and harassment (this is a real concern, as large numbers of young women are impregnated by teachers) or in order to get married or contribute to household chores.

There are several efforts afoot to encourage families to allow their daughters to remain in school. One approach is to encourage a high bride price for educated women, extolling the economic and health benefits an educated woman can bring to a family. But there is still mistrust of educated women and their ‘townly’ ways.

Lack of education brings lack of awareness about the law and legal rights. Women across the country are in prison for cheating on their husbands. The legal odds are often stacked against them. Very few women are even aware what the law actually says.

South Sudan’s history is not in women’s favour

Then there is the historical context. Until recently, South Sudan was relatively isolated. Forced Arabisation of education, and the imposition of sharia law under the Khartoum government, led to decades of civil war. Not one single citizen in South Sudan has remained untouched by that war. Women suffered rape and violence, and existed for years prey to militarised models of male power and domination. They experienced displacement, bereavement and loss on a massive scale. Every woman was like Hecuba, bereaved and disconsolate queen of Troy.

Even today, people are still quick to resort to violence to resolve disputes and grievances in South Sudan. Post-traumatic stress is almost universal, and is one of the main factors challenging the nation’s progress to a brighter, happier future.

Women in South Sudan lack professional role models

With all these odds against women, it is not surprising that there is a crisis of representation. A local NGO recently recruited a number of teachers to be trained to teach English. The application process involved an English language level test. Out of 140 applicants who achieved the required grade, only three were women. The British Council recently advertised the post of director programmes in its Juba office. Out of more than 85 applicants, only five were women. The paucity of women in positions of authority and the professional space is clear to see.

In response to this, and to ‘redress imbalances created by history, customs and traditions’, the government has instigated an affirmative action policy in the constitution, calling for a 25 per cent rate of female participation in all of the government. The reality is that the percentage of women in most categories falls below this mark. Even so, South Sudan’s government has realised that women will play a significant role in the future social economic and political success of the country.

Helping South Sudanese women redress the gender balance

It is against this background that we’re running women’s development workshops in Juba this week. A pilot of the programme, called Springboard, ran earlier this year. Women in the police and security sector took part, and 15 South Sudanese trainers were trained.

This week’s programme will include a refresher for the South Sudanese trainers, plus a three-day workshop for 30-40 local women from a range of public and civil organisations and NGOs. The training will show a sample of what’s possible to potential funders and partners, who have been invited along to learn more. The trainers will then go on to run more women’s workshops in South Sudan.

Awut Deng Acuil, South Sudan’s minister of gender, is a fan of the workshops: 'This programme is important. It will encourage our young women to play a role in building the country, whether in civil society, the government, unions or business.'

What happens in a Springboard women’s workshop

The workshops are designed to help women think about what they can achieve. The programme, which has been running in Nigeria, Australia, Saudi Arabia, the UK and many other countries, encourages women to decide which things they value in their lives and cultures, and which things they don’t like and want to change. The women who take part gain the confidence to articulate their aspirations, doubts and concerns. They share ideas and network with other women, both within and beyond the programme.

Because it runs in several countries with different cultural contexts, the Springboard programme is adapted to be relevant to the individual lives and cultures of the women taking part. In South Sudan, the women are shown profiles of other South Sudanese women, whose stories offer examples of what it is possible to achieve. The idea is to show not just how women can rise up the professional hierarchy, but also how they can take control of their lives and relationships with their partners, families, communities and work places.

Who takes part in the workshops

These South Sudanese women are market traders, and shop owners. Some work with NGOs or the police. There are midwives, clerks and a legal advisor. They have all suffered from the conflict and they have all got remarkable stories to relate. One woman made the point that South Sudan’s political and social flux is an opportunity for women: 'The culture of South Sudan is changing, so you can make up your own mind about which traditions you choose to keep.'

One of the techniques women learn in the workshops is how to be assertive. They learn how to challenge inconsistencies, clarify their feelings and avoid being passive. For example, if a woman is passed over for a job by her boss and feels upset about it, she’s given the following suggested script, which communicates the problem clearly and directly: ‘You said I didn’t have enough experience so I didn’t apply for the promotion. Now it’s been given to someone with less experience than me. I’m very confused and annoyed about this, and I would like an explanation.’

The future for South Sudanese women

We’ve been asked whether working with women alone is sufficient, or whether men need to be on board in order to change women’s lives. This is an argument that will not resolve itself soon, but if you wish to consider men’s contribution, it is certainly worth thinking about the Suffragettes, the glass ceilings that still hover over British and American boardrooms, and the misogynistic vitriol recently provoked in the UK by the thought of Jane Austen’s face on a ten-pound note. Gender inequality extends further than South Sudan’s borders.

Times in South Sudan are changing. Young women in Juba will live different lives than their mothers and grandmothers. A recent drama workshop run by the South Sudan Theater Organisation with 40 students from five secondary schools in Juba contained equal numbers of boys and girls. Huge efforts are in place to keep girls in school, and encourage families to value their daughters’ education. And with those changes comes a dilemma. Should the ancient way of life be put aside and centuries of cultural tradition dismantled, or can South Sudanese women empower themselves within it?

I’d like to give the last word here to Josephine Justin Ladu, a South Sudanese woman, who says: 'Dear women of South Sudan – we know that we have suffered during the war, but we should not give up. Keep moving on and you will get a reward. Ask other women what they are doing, and plan your life as well. Keep trying to achieve your dreams and God will help you.'

We are looking for corporate partners to fund more Springboard workshops in South Sudan and other countries. If you are interested in finding out more, please send an e-mail to and see our corporate partnerships pages.

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