Girls and Cows

So here I am again, sat outside my tent, my last night here before I head home and the blogging deadline I’ve imposed on myself is looming. I’ve promised a post on gender in South Sudan, and I really don’t know where to start.

Ok so let’s begin this story under a tree. I’m stood under this tree, at the back of a classroom, (as almost all children in South Sudan are taught under a tree this is not unusual) in front of me are seventy-eight children in class Primary 1, they are listening intently to their teacher, his trusty blackboard propped up against the trunk, and they are also sneaking cheeky glances at the kawaga.  Half of the children in the class are girls; I know because I counted them twice. I excitedly record this information in my little book. A great start to my report.

By the end of the day, having visited several other trees and done some background research I was in a less positive frame of mind.

As things currently stand, using the data available to me, I can tell you that only one of the girls in this class will progress all the way through this primary school. This girl will more than likely not go to secondary school; in fact statistically she is more likely to die during pregnancy or childbirth than she is to complete secondary school. Each of these girls is probably  going to be married before she is 18 years old, and will have approximately 7 children, 2 of these girls will have given birth before they reach 15 years old, and the chances are high that each girl will see one of her children die before it reaches the age of five. All of these girls have a value, a financial value.

50 years of war is going to take its toll on education, healthcare, infrastructure, the lot. My field is education so I can only really comment on that. The data shows that 40% of the men in South Sudan are literate, but shockingly that only 16% of women are literate. And because of these incredible figures there is a huge amount of work being done in the education sector – developing curricula, training teachers, building schools and all the rest, with a heavy emphasis on girls.

But now after the war, why are girls still not attending (or staying in)school?

The reason for this is actually quite simple and can be seen in all of the 50 (plus) tribes in the country. The solution to this issue however is incredibly complicated, and far too complicated to even contemplate in this post.

And anyway, what do I know, I don’t have all the answers, but I can tell you the story. And what is a male kawaga doing here anyway trying to explain gender equality (or the lack of it) in South Sudan? My own country doesn’t exactly have a great track record when it comes to equality of the sexes, only the other week the papers were covering stories on the disparity between the salaries of male and female company directors. And yesterday the Church of England made a giant leap back into the dark ages by deciding that women were not to be allowed to become Bishops.  Good work team COE, what’s next on the agenda? Stoning’s? Burning at the stake?

As the late great comedian Bill Hicks said when asked his opinion of the then contentious issue of women priests:

“Women priests. Great, great. Now there’s priests of both sexes I don’t listen to.”

Anyway, I digress. The reason that girls are not getting educated is:


That’s right, cows, lots of cows and goats as well depending on what tribe you are from, and money, of course there is a lot of money involved here too.

South Sudan has a very well established and ancient system of dowry. A young, healthy (preferably tall) girl who hasn’t been ‘spoiled’ can be worth anything between 20 and 200 cows to her family when she becomes a wife. In some tribes this is translated into goats, in others money, or a combination, in one area of South Sudan a wife can be bought using the currency of agricultural tools – 500 hoes will get you a wife!

With each cow worth up to US$500 (depending on their age and health), it’s practically impossible for a young man to be able to collect anything close to that much money or animals so the purchase of a bride is usually spread throughout the family, which in turn is then often distributed through the bride’s family as well.  And the same as everywhere in the world, the prices are going up. The cost of a dowry has risen by almost 50% since the signing of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement.

And the situation of ‘ownership’ through dowry, and especially the increased costs of ownership leads to high instances of domestic violence. In many tribes in South Sudan violence by a husband against a wife is widespread, it is not only tolerated, it is often expected. In fact it is such an unspoken violence that there are no data available  to accurately demonstrate or report it.

Of course the wealthy South Sudanese men quite often have several wives, polygamy is very common. The District Commissioner in the state where I am currently working is rumoured to have between 70 and 100 wives, and subsequently several hundred children, though this isn’t though greed, this is a way of contributing to the families and putting money back into the community.

“Why do men have so many wives?” I asked a friend once, he replied “If you have one wife you can have a small farm, if you have two wives a larger farm, if you have three wives you can have a huge farm, oh and lots of children, lots of girls”

So a wife really is an investment, not only does the ‘possession’ of a wife bring you a ready source of labour; (not counting the collecting of fire wood, pumping and carrying of water, collecting food, cooking the food, cleaning and child care etc.) she is also a source of future income, assuming she can have girl children, and the more wives the bigger the returns. And you have to be quick; the younger you get a wife, the more children she can produce.

There are other cultural reasons why men have more than one wife. For example women don’t (well they might do but it is frowned upon) have sex whilst they are breast feeding, which means the man is potentially going to go without sex for quite a long time during the marriage depending on how many children his wife is able to produce, so to get a second wife means he doesn’t have to miss out on sex. There is also a cultural law in some parts of the country that forbids a woman from having sex once her eldest daughter reaches puberty. So there are also quite a few women in their mid-twenties who have to become celibate for their remaining years, which again presents the need for a second wife.

Marriage is an important institution here; both male and female youths are not recognized as adults until they are married. An unmarried man may have more difficulty finding a job, as he is considered to be unsettled and perhaps unreliable.  And for a man to have two wives is definitely a step up the status ladder. Someone in my class last week said when describing a colleague, “he comes in telling us what to do. Who does he think he is? He acts like he has two wives!”

So how does education or the lack of education come into all this? Well to be honest, when you are forking out a wodge of cash and a load of expensive cattle on a wife, you aren’t buying her for her education. In fact if she has been educated, and displays some opinions or thoughts this could be considered a bad thing, and certainly something that might reduce her value to her family. If an educated girl starts having an opinion on who she wants to be married to this could seriously affect the price of the dowry, as the value of the dowry depends as much on the wealth of the husband-to-be as it does the ‘qualities’ of the girl.

So the traditional  thinking is that girls don’t need education. The skills required for the running the home, labouring and making babies don’t extend to reading and writing. And women and girls have little time to get that education even if it was needed. As the girl children grow older they are also required to take on the household tasks to support their mother, there isn’t a lot of time for school, and they will not be able to attend school when they are married anyway because they will have their own house to run.

Girls are kept away from school for another reason. Families are concerned that as their girl child grows older, her close proximity with young boys at school could bring a whole host of problems. There is good chance that the girl will be ‘spoiled’ either consensually or not, and that will impact on the dowry value. If the girl has to travel a long distance to school, some children walk in excess of 2 hours each way, there is a very real risks of rape and abduction. In fact many girls are sent away from the family home to live at the cattle camps, (where the cattle are taken to have access to water) here the girls can be protected by the armed cattle herders and have a limitless supply of fresh cow milk.

So all in all, any benefits of educating a child just don’t seem to be in line with the traditions of marriage and just complicate matters. Oh and there is just one other problem that this dowry system contributes to.

Cattle raiding. And that’s a whole other issue…

So there you have it. The reason why girls are not getting educated is mainly because of cows. Although this is just a small introduction to the issues of gender and education, it is a big contributor to the huge problems women and girls face each day in South Sudan, and something that is being worked on and around very carefully.

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