Women and culture: the role of women in the development of southern Sudan
By Michael Kuany
The largest country in Africa, Sudan has over 578 tribes, each with its own unique culture. These tribes are based in geographical regional locations, and many have seen gradual shifts in their cultural heritage over the years. However, the region of southern Sudan is still known for its cultural distinction. In this article, I attempt to investigate the cultural role of women and its impact on the development of southern Sudan. I will also analyze the impact of culture on women to determine whether the enforcement of cultural norms on women ever violates their human rights, and to identify what is required to positively impact the future of southern Sudan and her women.
Women in Sudanese culture
In general, southern Sudanese women from rural villages are treated as second-class citizens. They do not hold roles of authority or any esteemed significance in their families or communities. They are obligated to marry a man chosen by the family out of the dowry system, a system that treats women as a commodity to essentially be bought or sold. Rural southern Sudanese women have no voice regarding their own rights, and are unable to participate in any major decision-making process regarding themselves or their families. In these male-dominated cultures, women are to be submissive and subservient to their family-in-laws and to their husbands. In some tribes, such as those in the Dinka and Nuer regions, women are regarded solely as a source of income for the family’s benefit. Rarely is the importance of designating resources to send a wife or daughter to school to receive an education considered.
The impact of civil war and resettlement
In 2005, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) was signed in Nairobi, Kenya, ending the decades-long civil war between northern and southern Sudan. Since that time, southern Sudanese culture has faced upheaval as a result of the resettlement of Sudanese refugees in neighboring countries such as Uganda and Kenya, as well as in the western world where they sought refuge. Although the civil war in Sudan had tragic consequences in the death and suffering of hundreds of thousands of people, its aftermath has also brought a new worldview to those who fled and were thus able to go to pursue an education regardless of their gender. Those who settled in urban areas or in the United States were introduced to societies in which women are treated very differently and in which relationships between men and women or husband and wife involved the sharing of power, responsibility, and decision-making. Southern Sudanese women who resettled to such locations experienced the positive outcomes of education for themselves, their children, and their families. Perhaps for the first time, they were able to recognize the cultural traditions that had previously violated their human rights.
The twenty-one year long civil war in Sudan forced the people of southern Sudan to examine their cultural traditions and to compare them to those of the countries where they sought refuge. Women in particular began to consider their future differently than they ever had previously. For example, in rural southern Sudanese culture, women are expected to obey their fathers in regards to arranged marriages, with the threat of physical violence including beatings, rape, or abduction accompanying any perceived or actual disobedience. In sharp contrast, those southern Sudanese women who fled to other countries discovered cultures in which a woman would not be coerced into marriage but could marry a man of her own choosing. Similarly, the present role of the southern Sudanese village woman is to see to the care of the children and elders of the extended family, to provide all of the upkeep for the home and day-to-day life, and to manage food production. If a woman was able to find a way to generate any extra income, the funds would go directly to the needs of the family. It was never conceived that a woman’s role could vary from this.
Interestingly, southern Sudanese women who have somehow been able to attain an education are highly regarded, even by the men who live in rural villages. Such women often come from well-to-do families who can afford to provide for them a quality education. They are able to hold government positions, be gainfully employed, participate in decision-making, and can be seen in leadership roles that have an important effect on the future of their country. This is critical to take into account when considering the following.
The future of southern Sudan
In January of 2011, a referendum will be held in southern Sudan in which a vote will be taken regarding whether or not the north and south will be united as one nation or if the south will become its own independent nation. Although the referendum is only in the planning stages, it is already plagued with problems. On April 11, 2010, the country conducted a multi-party election for the first time in twenty-four years. These elections were intended to be held in a fair and corruption-free manner. What resulted was a situation in which over 350 parties vied for government positions, resulting only in more division and the re-election of the incumbent president.
Still, it is most likely that the people of southern Sudan will vote overwhelmingly for southern Sudan to become an independent country, and it is imperative that this new reality be accompanied by a cultural shift in which women are made active participants in creating a modern society. A critical component of this shift involves education. Education will enable the men and women of southern Sudan to embrace a broader worldview and it will encourage women in rural villages to advocate for the education of their children. For even now, southern Sudanese men are recognizing the positive impact of women’s education on the social and economic betterment of family’s lives. Although it may take time for widespread acceptance of these changes to occur, change is needed.
For validation of these cultural changes, one can look to the changing role of women in the United States throughout the twentieth century. The role of women shifted from one in which women were responsible primarily for staying at home with their children and taking care of the household to a whole new paradigm in which women were empowered to use their intelligence, gifts and talents outside the home setting. With the women’s movement, women were encouraged to seek higher education, to be trained for jobs outside the home, to demand basic human rights such as the right to be paid what a man is paid for the same job, to have equal decision-making power in marriage and child-rearing, and to seek positions of leadership in the world of business and government. Today, first world nations realize that they need intelligent women to contribute and lead their nations if they are to complete in the world economy.
This same cultural change is needed in southern Sudan if it is to become a country that competes in the global economy. Women in southern Sudan must be educated so that their natural gifts and talents can be nurtured and so that they will be able to obtain the skills needed in professions of their own choosing. Their expertise in a variety of professions will only contribute to the social and economic development of both the rural villages and urban areas in their new country. It is my belief that southern Sudan desperately needs to enact laws that protect women’s rights and that ensure the rights of all women to receive an education. This will be a crucial development in determining the future of southern Sudan.
Southern Sudan is a nation with incredible natural resources. But holding onto tribal cultural traditions regarding women’s roles in rural villages will result in the sacrificing of a vital resource, a resource that may prove to be the most essential if competition in the world market is desired. Whether or not southern Sudan will be able to enter the global economy and succeed in the development of its people depends to a large extent on the empowerment of her women.
Michael Ayuen Kuany holds a masters degree (MA) from Eastern Mennonite University and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin. He is a president of Coalition of the Willing (COW). He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org