Saturday, June 28, 2008


A woman's place - neither seen nor heard

I came back today from a couple of days in Juba, the de facto capital of Southern Sudan, essentially a pile of shacks nestling on a giant stinking rubbish dump on the Nile.

I was there for a conference on Gender and Development, attended by seventy-four reps from NGOs (Oxfam, Save the Children etc) and CSOs – civil society organisations – what we'd recognise as small community groups and charities. Discussions centred around health, peacebuilding, political and economic participation.

This is a society where women and children are very much at the bottom of the heap. It's not unusual to see women cooking, cleaning, caring for children, tilling the soil squatting in the mud with tiny hand-held hoes, while the men sit around chatting and waiting to be served. A society where literacy rates for males are 37%, and for females just 12%, where women are not allowed to own cattle and are rated in terms of their marriagebility in exchange for cows, where men will happily walk around hand in hand with another man, but never with a woman.

So even to be discussing gender issues is a pretty revolutionary concept, and for local women to be taking part in such a discussion is groundbreaking indeed.

We're pretty much accustomed to hearing the arguments for equality rehearsed frequently, so it can come as a surprise to hear people trotting out old-fashioned sexist views, and while full equality is still some way off, at least just about everyone gets the idea, even if they don't act on it. But the things we'd take for granted aren't even a given here.

Like the fact that girls don't go to school if there's no latrine their for them, or if they have a period, as they don't have any sanitary protection. Or women not being permitted to have a baby in hospital in case someone else sees their body, resulting in serious illness or even death for women and babies, all of it quite preventable.

I was horrified to hear of “morality laws” introduced arbitrarily in many towns (including here in Rumbek) where women are forbidden from wearing trousers, riding on a motorbike, braiding their hair in certain ways. There were numerous tales from the floor of women being arrested, attacked, their clothes ripped for flouting these so-called laws.

And woe betide you if you get a sexually transmitted disease from your husband, because you'll be to blame, and if you're lucky enough to get treated, he sure won't, so you and all his other wives will be perpetually at risk.

Or how about the incident of a woman who was escaping domestic violence, just to be raped by the police who were supposed to be protecting her. So the horror stories went on.

It seems astonishing that a people who fought a national liberation struggle against forced Islamisation from Khartoum should impose equally draconian measures on half their population.

Which is why it was even more amazing to meet the intelligent and articulate women at the conference who are daring to raise their heads and speak out, putting themselves at risk of ridicule, ostracisation – and worse. There's some amazing work being done to change attitudes, but with such a low literacy rate, virtually no independent media and women's almost complete domestic and economic enslavement, it's going to be a long task.

The fundamental issue are the roles of “tradition”, culture and plain superstition in perpetuating this loathsome situation. While some traditions such as the taboo on having sex with a pregnant woman from conception and for two years after birth may have had a rationale in preventing women being made constantly pregnant, now it's just a good excuse for polygamy - just for men, mind.

So it all leaves you wondering just how long it's going to take for women to get on even the first rung of the equality ladder, all the time their value is measured, not in terms of intelligence, capability or economic activity, but in cows.


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