Gender in South Sudan, “Dilemma and Hope”​

South Sudan is the world’s youngest country, gaining independence on July 9th 2011 after decades of civil war. The main ethnic groups are Dinka, Nuer, Bari, Murle and Shilluk and official languages are English and Arabic, however, the country is home to more than 60 ethnic groups and 80 indigenous languages. Christianity is the main religion, followed by Islam and traditional beliefs. The population is very young, as 72% of the population is under 30 years old. The majority of South Sudanese (83%) live in rural areas although there are significant differences between states. Cattle ownership is very important for most South Sudanese ethnic groups’ culture. The size of one’s herd is a key marker of wealth, and in many parts of South Sudan, cattle are also used as a dowry. Cattle-raiding is not surprisingly one of the main catalysts of inter-communal violence.

The South Sudanese people have been living under armed conflict almost continuously since the 1950s. Over 2.5 million lives have been lost and the livelihoods of tens of millions of people have been affected (MOHDAM, 2010) over two intense periods of armed conflict.

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The civil war between the government of the Republic of Sudan and the Sudanese People‘s Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M) lasted from 1983 to 2005. The root causes of the North-South conflict included control over resources and, from the perspective of the SPLA/M, this was a war for political autonomy, self-determination and secularism. The conflict intensified after the discovery of oil in the South in the 1980s. Political negotiations in the early 2000s led to the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005 and ultimately to the referendum for the independence of South Sudan.

Unfortunately, peace did not last long. In December 2013, South Sudan was already at the centre of renewed violence as civil war broke out following the split in the SPLA/M government as President Salva Kiir dismissed the vice president Riek Machar, accused of organizing a coup against Mr Kiir’s government. The split reflected and the ethnic divisions between the main ethnic groups of the Dinka and Nuer, with the former supporting President Salva Kiir, and the second supporting ex-Vice President Riak Machar.  The conflict continued with heavy casualties until 2015 when a temporary peace treaty was signed. However, both sides accused each other of violating the terms of the peace treaty and in July 2016, fighting broke out again in Juba, plunging the country back into conflict.

In 2018 a Peace agreement was facilitated by IGAD and signed by the warring parties and is currently under implementation, although not without many challenges.  

Gender relations in South Sudan are complex. The roles and responsibilities of women, men, boys and girls are clearly delineated but can and do alter.

Women and girls have responsibilities for farming, collecting water and firewood, cooking, cleaning, childcare, and brewing beer. Men and boys have responsibilities as decision-makers for the communities and their families, cattle herding (boys in particular), hunting, fishing and charcoal making. In times of crisis, gender roles and responsibilities change to take account of the context, the needs and the different coping strategies families and individuals can put into action. The conflict temporarily transformed some gender roles. Women managed to keep a semblance of community life as they went about taking care of their children and doing most of the work done by men, most of whom had gone off to war. Gender relations have been shaped by the social and economic realities resulting from the prolonged period of warfare and lack of governance, which made South Sudan one of the world’s least developed countries. South Sudan has the highest rate of maternal mortality in the world: one in seven women will die from childbirth or pregnancy (2,054 per 100,000). Infant mortality rates are also extremely high with 75 children per 1000 dying before their first birthday.

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Women account for over 60% of the population in South Sudan. Rather than been the product of nature, this is the direct result of over 39 years of conflict, which have not only deprived women of their husbands and sons but also contributed to the creation of a disturbing and conventional post-war society coupled with discriminatory cultural traditions and abject poverty, undermining the promotion of equal rights and the ability for women to actively participate in the development of their new nation. Prevailing cultural norms, especially in the countryside, marginalize women from participation at any level of political activity or decision-making. Early marriages are very common, and husband paying a price for their bride to her family – usually in the form of cattle – is the norm. Polygamy is also very common with 41% of unions involving more than one wife. Divorce is extremely difficult for women to obtain. Traditionally only men can divorce their wife and the wife’s family have to pay back the price paid for the bride. Gender-based violence and protection violations in South Sudan are driven by a culture of silence and stigma, traditional norms and beliefs which support or accept gender power imbalances and inequalities, lack access to legal resources and justice system, and customary practices that favour compensation for crimes like rape. Domestic violence is also widely accepted by both women and men in South Sudan and there is no specific domestic violence law in the country.

However, since independence, there have been real changes at least in national policy and laws which go in the right direction for promoting gender equality. The Transitional Constitution and Bill of Rights (2011) provides guarantees for the equality of men and women. It recognizes the historic inequalities between women and men in South Sudan and sets out a 25% Affirmative Action quota for women in legislative and executive bodies. Women currently comprise 26.5% of the National Legislative Assembly. Women in South Sudan have engaged in peace negotiating teams and a significant number of women participated in drafting the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (2005). Furthermore, women’s organizations and movements have emerged gradually over the years, even though they are still in their initial stages and very few women’s organizations exist. Nevertheless, the return of many qualified women to South Sudan after independence gives hope that these organizations and their work will keep growing in the future. The importance of women’s role in the political, economic, cultural development and national building process cannot be underestimated.

Despite the government’s commitment to gender equality, women played a very small role in the development of the transitional constitution. A strategic and sustained approach needs to be developed with the government and civil society organizations to translate the commitment of the government from rhetoric to reality.

Gender and protection concerns for women, men, boys and girls are a crucial issue in South Sudan and further steps need to be taken to address these problems and mitigate the harm they cause. Therefore, it’s essential to understand better how gender relations do affect the needs and coping strategies of the population, as well as participation and access to humanitarian assistance.

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To address the needs of survivors of gender-based violence, international and local NGOs are implementing GBV prevention and response programs based on a survivor-centred approach, which establishes safe spaces where women and girls can access help, and community-based GBV taskforces are trained to provide psychological first aid and safe referrals to services. Through safe spaces, NGOs also support livelihoods activities to reduce women’s economic vulnerability, including helping women to organize and run village savings and loans associations. Sensitization and training of community leaders are conducted to combat harmful practices and strengthen support for survivors, and wider community awareness is promoted to encourage long-lasting behavioural change in society, through various activities and events. For example, every year, from 25 November to 10 December, NGOs organize outreach campaigns in different locations as part of the global event of “16 Days of Activism to end Gender-Based Violence”.

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Recognizing the differential impact that the protracted crisis and all of its consequences – open conflict, siege, and displacement, etc. – has had on women, men, girls, and boys of different ages, backgrounds and abilities, NGOs prioritize gender-sensitivity at the core of their response efforts and emphasize the need to raise women’s voices and enable their meaningful participation in decision-making within their households, communities, civil society, and the broader humanitarian response. Organizations have worked with men and boys as allies for gender equality. This work has often been integrated into women’s empowerment activities, particularly in relation to women’s economic empowerment, the fight against HIV and AIDS and violence against women and girls.

Ultimately, partners stress the necessity for collaboration between the international community and regional actors for prevention of violence against women and girls in South Sudan. However, the real transformation takes place only with the consultation, participation, and expertise of women, and by addressing gender equality at every level.

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