Culturally, girls are still expected to stay at home to help with household chores and to be married off at a young age, when families receive a ‘bride price’ in return for their daughter. This dowry system helps to perpetuate the view of girls as ‘commodities’ across much of South Sudan, where violence against women is also accepted as commonplace. In a recent report released by the Conflict and Health Journal, over two-thirds of respondents (both male and female) answering questions about gender-based violence agreed with the statement that “there are times when women deserve to be beaten”.
Speaking to the news agency IRIN, a nurse who runs a clinic for the International Rescue Committee said that most cases of violent abuse are suffered by girls and women aged between 12 and 30. She added that it was common for her to treat girls as young as “eight years, 10 years and even below that”.
However, victims rarely receive any form of redress. Girls are discouraged from speaking out about abuse and cases are hardly ever reported to the police. As one worker who runs a local non-governmental organisation aimed at empowering women told IRIN, girls see little point in reporting violence if the police “don’t even think it’s wrong”.
The high rates of child marriage does nothing to help the situation, with nearly two-fifths of girls married before the age of 18. Research studies have shown that girls married at a young age are more likely to be abused by their husbands and often feel unable to stand up for themselves because of a lack of education. Only 16% of women in South Sudan are literate.
The lack of an education also means that many women have no way to support themselves independently, forcing them to stay in violent marriages. If they complain about abuse, it’s common practice for the man’s family to deal with the matter. And if a woman opts for divorce, she generally loses custody of children, unless they are very young. In these cases, children stay with the mother until they are old enough to be handed over to their fathers.
However, campaigners and development workers in South Sudan believe change is happening, albeit slowly. The transitional constitution of the new country confers women with equal rights to work, to receive equal pay and to have access to services such as education. And a new land act grants women the right to inherit the property of their husbands. Campaigners believe these changes, as well as easier access to financial support through micro-credit schemes, are helping to improve women’s prospects. But they also acknowledge that changing attitudes relies on more girls being educated in the first place and knowing about their rights.