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South Sudan’s women in the spotlight [part 5]

MiCT The Niles
‘This is how marriage happens sometimes’: Women and marriage in South Sudan.
27.10.2012  |  Juba

Cows, marriage, and children

Perhaps more than any other aspect of life in South Sudan, it is marriage that shapes a woman’s experiences, her status and her responsibilities. In ‘Hope, Pain and Patience: The lives of women in South Sudan’, Orly Stern describes the pivotal role that marriage plays, the various practices that relate to it and some of the changes it has undergone as a result of the social impact of war and independence.

In South Sudan, marriage is a social institution, involving whole families and tying together separate kinship groups. Because it shapes the social relations of entire communities, marriage has a central and critical place in society.

Other resources that focus on gender in South Sudan:

Small Arms Survey’s Human Security Baseline Assessment for Sudan and South Sudan
UNICEF in South Sudan

United States Institute for Peace

Women for Women in South Sudan

UNDP in South Sudan
Men have to pay a significant sum in bride price in order to marry. This can be important sources of income for families, and the need to afford bride price payments gives men an important motivation to accumulate wealth. Because ending a marriage means returning the bride price, extended families have a stake in a marriage, and marital disputes are perceived as community problems rather than as private issues. While on the one hand, it means that supportive relatives have an interest in assisting couples to resolve their problems, it can also mean that, for the sake of social cohesion, relatives prevent women from seeking to escape serious marital problems.

The acquisition of several wives is prevalent, legal and widely accepted in South Sudan. In fact, it is seen as important for socio-economic advancement, as many wives can bear many daughters, who in turn can bring in many cattle from bride price when they eventually marry. Rose Akol, one of the women interviewed for Stern’s chapter on women and marriage in South Sudan, describes the central relationship between marriage and wealth as follows: ‘Lives are structured around cows, marriage and children: cows give you marriage, marriage gives you children. Therefore there is a circle.’

However, with modernisation, some people mainly in upper classes have moved away from polygyny. In particular, educated women have become less likely to accept polygyny, refusing to allow their husbands to take on additional wives.

Women’s choices about marriage

While some sections of society may be moving away from polygyny, remaining single is not regarded as a real option in South Sudan, particularly for women. Unmarried women are scorned, not taken seriously, and are considered lowly by society. This prejudice extends to divorced women as well. Not being married has implications on many levels, including career advancement. For instance, in South Sudanese politics, the husband’s family nominates a woman to parliament, and therefore single women cannot be political representatives.

Also read:

‘We were all soldiers’: Female combatants in South Sudan’s civil war [part 1]
‘Sibu ana, sibu ana’: Survivors of sexual violence in South Sudan [part 2]
‘If you can’t use your hands to make a living…’: Female sex workers in Juba, South Sudan [part 3]
Taking on new challenges: Women in Service Delivery [part 4]Young women, while needing their family’s approval, are free in theory to marry any man who can produce a suitable bride price. In practice, however, several common practices prevent women from making their own choices about marriage.

Firstly, families sometimes give their daughters over for marriage at a young age to obtain the bride price. Young girls are frequently married off to much older men, who are able to pay more. Early marriage was very prevalent during the war, because the dire economic conditions put families in a position where they desperately required early bride price. Families also tried to marry their daughters off as early as possible so that, even if their husbands went to war and did not return, the bride’s family would have secured the bride price and ensured that their daughter would be provided for by her husband’s family.

Secondly, rape -- and during the war, even the possibility of sexual violation -- has a tremendous impact on a woman’s choices in marriage. A woman who is raped, and is thus no longer a virgin, is considered ‘spoiled’ and unlikely to find a husband. As a result, when unmarried South Sudanese women are raped, the families of the victim and the perpetrator often enter into negotiations, and the rape victim is often forced to marry the rapist. In fact, men sometimes rape so that a woman will be forced to marry them, knowing that, once a woman is no longer a virgin, her family will no longer be able to demand as high a bride price. The possibility of rape also motivated early marriage during the war. Fearing that the bride price would be forfeited if their daughters were abducted from refugee camps and either forcibly married or sexually violated, families married them off early to prevent a potential loss of income. Since the end of the war, steps have been taken to put an end to the practice of early marriage.

Domestic violence

KAJU is a song about the women of South Sudan and the challenges they are facing. The song developed by Sister Dee is produced with the support of Xchange Perspectives in Yei, South Sudan.As head of the household, it is seen as acceptable for a South Sudanese husband to ‘discipline’ his wife and children. Many women buy in to this too, with explaining that ‘women are like children, they need to be disciplined’. The little research that exists concerning domestic violence suggests that it is widespread, frequent and growing. The social acceptability of domestic violence allows it to prevail, as does the low status of women in society. Alcohol abuse is a further significant factor.

Although divorce is technically possible in South Sudan, it is highly discouraged and extremely rare. Given the social centrality of marriage, divorce means the dissolution of bonds between extended kin -- a very drastic state of affairs. Families and tribal elders will seek to deal with marital problems without resorting to divorce. The difficulty of obtaining a divorce, which forces women to remain in abusive marriages, are further significant factors.

A contract that lasts beyond death

For many South Sudanese tribes, death does not break the marriage contract -- only the return of bride price that can break the contract between man and wife. One consequence of this is that if a woman bears any children after her husband’s death, regardless of their biological father, the children are said to be the deceased’s children.

Another consequence is wife inheritance, which is intended to maintain the marriage bonds between the extended families of the couple and to provide a social safety net for widows, but can have dire financial and health consequences. Interestingly, the practice of wife inheritance decreased during the war. In one study, widows reported feeling abandoned and suffering as a result of the fact that they had not been ‘inherited’. This illustrates the complexity of these practices, which while harmful in some ways, can also serve important social purposes.These complexities must be taken into consideration in the drafting of new laws and policies.

Changing dynamics

During the civil wars, with many men leaving to join the war effort or find employment elsewhere, South Sudanese wives suddenly found themselves acting as heads of their households, holding positions of independence and responsibility that were new to them. Many women also contributed to the war effort. These opportunities for increased female independence and power began to affect the rigid power dynamics within marital relationships.

Download the bibliography:
‘This is how marriage happens sometimes’: Women and marriage in South Sudan
After the end of the war, the effects of these shifts continue to be felt. Some men returning from the frontlines felt disempowered by seeing women occupying the positions they used to hold. This contributed to the development of a ‘crisis of masculinity’, which it can be argued may be playing a role in the rising rates of domestic and sexual violence.

In the newly independent South Sudan, when so many aspects of people’s lives are in transition, the institution of marriage, too, is shifting and adapting. At the same time, new laws and policies are being drafted to regulate the newly formed state, and to set it on a course of equality and increasing respect for human rights. This period provides an opportunity to effect changes in practices that are harmful to women. It is with regard to changing the rules of marriage that, if successful, the biggest improvements to women’s lives will be seen.

Adapted by Cara Meintjes, from Orly Stern’s chapter, ‘This is how marriage happens sometimes’: Women and marriage in South Sudan” in Hope, Pain and Patience: The Lives of Women in South Sudan. Edited by Friederike Bubenzer and Orly Stern. Photographs by Irene Abdou and Jenn Warren. A Publication of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation. ISBN Number: 978-1-920196-36-3. Published by Jacana Media. Available from