JUBA — In the studio of Advance Youth Radio, in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, Eva Lopa concludes her weekly program. Outside, night is falling.

Focused, Lopa thanks her guests — a high school poet and a representative of the Okay Africa Foundation — who have just spent an hour talking with listeners. Unaffordable feminine hygiene products and the lack of sanitary facilities in schools were on that evening's agenda for the show, Gender Talk 211, which discusses the place of women in society, their contribution to the struggle for liberation in South Sudan, and menstruation.

With the microphones switched off, the conversation continues on this October night, because menstruation, and the way its onset is perceived, say a lot about the plight of girls in South Sudan.

"Here, we are considered marriageable as soon as we get our period!" says Kiden of Okay Africa Foundation, a South Sudanese NGO that promotes women's rights. "And girls who are married before they are old enough, no one listens to them, they have no voice," adds high school student Anek.

Sometimes, Okay Africa finds it difficult to provide support because "the victims refuse our help, thinking that, since its part of the culture, it's acceptable," says Kiden. She and her organization are determined to keep fighting to change attitudes in this country where 52% of girls are married before they turn 18 (a UN figure for 2017). Only 1.3% of them are still in school at 16 compared to 10.3% of boys of the same age (UN figure for 2018).

Yet South Sudan has developed a legal arsenal that favors gender equality. Article 15 of the transitional constitution guarantees that "no marriage shall be entered into without the free and full consent of the man and woman intending to marry." The text nevertheless forgets to set a legal age, taking refuge behind the vague description of "marriageable age."

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which sets the legal age of marriage at 18, and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women may have complemented this founding text, but they have not really advanced social norms.

Even today, "a little girl is growing up here to become a wife and a mother," says Lopa. Interestingly, she remembers how her father, the legendary journalist Alfred Taban, pushed her to "become a pilot, an astronaut... everything I dreamed of. My mother was worried that I couldn't cook and wondered how I was going to find a husband..."

Now, with her friends, she "leads conversations about educating girls and boys equally to give hope to young people."

Even today, "a little girl is growing up here to become a wife and a mother."

Aluel Atem, the founder of the Gender Talk 211 platform, recalls that these "spaces of support and online discussions" were first intended to "respond to the attacks and harassment" some were being experienced because of their feminist stances.

Atem is a blogger, grassroots activist and consultant for various organizations including the United States Institute of Peace. Atem was born during the Second Sudanese Civil War (1983-2005) in a refugee camp in Ethiopia. Her parents were involved with John Garang in the Sudan People's Liberation Movement, which signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005 with Khartoum, paving the way for South Sudan's independence in 2011.

"I get my passion from my mother, who was a member of the Katiba Banat [Arabic for ‘the girls' battalion']. This was a group of young women perceived as pariahs in society for defying stereotypes," explains Atem. She says the participation of women in the liberation struggle "is the missing chapter" in the country's official history.

And yet, women have played a significant role, as pointed out by Esther Soma, the author of an Oxfam report published in March on women's participation in the South Sudan peace process. "When the liberation struggle began, many men went out to fight and, while women officially took over running the household, some women also went into combat," she says. "They formed humanitarian associations to support the rebellion and provide for their own needs. Once the peace negotiations began, they asked to be included."

But, here again, reality does not reflect the law. A 25% quota for women's participation in government was enshrined in the Constitution of Southern Sudan in 2005, and increased to 35% in 2018. In practice, though, the figure is not being achieved.

Historian Stephanie Beswick wrote in 2001 that the relative failure of traditional practices due to the civil war was also a factor in the transformation of gender relations in the country. This was the case of the ancient tradition most commonly known as "wife inheritance." This practice is that when a man dies, his widow has no choice but to be "remarried" to the husband's brother or another male member of his family, who also inherits the property and children.

This tradition, which was originally intended to ensure that "she is never without a husband to care for her and her children" was undermined in the 1990s. South Sudanese widows who had fled to northern Kenya — far from their in-laws and left to fend for themselves after their husbands disappeared — challenged the model. Then, the "new foreign cultures introduced by NGOs" broke through, the historian analyzes.

There is a discrepancy between the norms in practice in villages and the official laws of the country — Photo: Tariq Zaidi/ZUMA Wire/ZUMAPRESS.com

There is still a long way to go because, although weakened, these "oppressive patriarchal cultural norms are still in place," says Atem. She points to this idea of wife inheritance, which is still widely applied, as well as polygamy and the dowry system. The latter custom "makes the community exercise a right over women, owning them," she says.

The dowry is paid by the groom's extended family to that of his wife and calculated using livestock among the Dinka, Nuer and many other ethnic groups in South Sudan. If the wife later wishes to divorce, she must get the approval of her parents, uncles, brothers and even cousins to "repay" the dowry. This makes divorces very difficult.

Widely reported in international media, the story of the marriage of Nyalong Ngong Deng Jalang, a young girl from Yirol who was 16 in 2018, illustrates the discrepancy between the norms in practice in villages and the official laws of the country. Her family had begun traditional negotiations for her marriage and six men were competing to marry her.

All this was happening privately within the family, before a photo of Nyalong Ngong Deng Jalang appeared on Facebook, detailing the record dowry offers of the various bachelors and causing a scandal. "Teenage bride sold in 'barbaric' Facebook auction" reads a headline from The Times.

Lopa, who was also involved in the campaign to save Nyalong Ngong Deng Jalang, recalls having to confront the defenders of a certain idea of South Sudanese culture. In fact, despite the global outrage, no one prevented the girl's marriage to 50-year-old businessman Kok Alat for a dowry of 530 cows, three V8 vehicles and $10,000, all paid to her father.

In April 2019, following the murder of a girl who had refused an arranged marriage, Amnesty International again attempted to draw attention to the "patriarchal practice" of treating girls as "communal commodities."

In the face of this opposition, Victoria John Angelo, a 27-year-old single woman, believes it is important to maintain hope. She manages a hotel-restaurant in Juba. Angelo is also in charge of peace-building activities in her home village of Terekeka (80 kms north of Juba) for the Whitaker Foundation. She supports her two siblings, her mother and also a young woman she rescued from a forced marriage.

Angelo notes a change as a result of the workshops and discussions conducted in the villages. Being herself an example of an independent, educated woman who is able to earn money through work, she praises the merits of sending girls to school rather than marrying them off. "They will be able to buy their own cows with their salary," she says.

The tune is slow to change, but each of these victories is having an effect on the destiny of women in South Sudan.


See more from World Affairs here