NAIROBI (TrustLaw) – The greatest risk South Sudanese women face is in their own homes, despite the more obvious dangers posed by continued fighting, according to a new report by the Small Arms Survey.
South Sudan became independent last July following two decades of war with the Sudanese government in Khartoum. But nationhood has not brought peace, with over 325,000 people forced from their homes in 2011 due to a surge in fighting between the army and rebels and between rival ethnic groups, according to the U.N.
“The main threats to their security come not from traditional external sources, such as militia groups or armed conflict with Sudan, but from within their own homes,” the report said. "In the home, the place where they should feel most secure, women face numerous threats.”
Gender inequalities, rooted in culture, are often to blame, as well as chronic poverty and a lack of development.
Child marriage and domestic violence are socially accepted norms.
“I was 11 years old when I was promised in marriage,” said one 24-year-old interviewee, describing how she used to run and hide from her future husband when he came to visit as she only wore underwear at home.
“I didn’t want to marry him, but I didn’t have any choice. I had so many brothers who needed cattle [for marriage] and this man came with 30 cattle, so my father forced me to marry him.”
In South Sudan, as among many traditional pastoralist communities across Africa, the bride’s family receives a dowry, or bride price, from her husband’s family as a symbol of their appreciation for agreeing to the marriage. This is usually in the form of cattle.
KICKED IN THE STOMACH
Domestic violence is endemic in South Sudan, the report said.
The majority of women interviewed accepted domestic violence as a normal part of married life.
Two interviewees said their friend, who was four months pregnant, had been kicked in the stomach by her husband and admitted to hospital the previous day.
“Although they said she clearly hated and feared her husband, she was forced to return home with him,” the report said.
“Her friends explained: ‘Where else will she go? What will she do? She cannot divorce him; her family will not accept it.’”
Divorce is rare. Aside from the family pressure to remain married – as divorce would force the woman’s family to return the dowry cattle – mothers fear losing custody of their children.
Under customary law, children who have stopped breastfeeding should live with their father if their parents divorce. In some communities, they may stay with their mother up to the age of seven.
“The risk of losing their children forces many South Sudanese women to remain in abusive marriages,” the report said.
WORLD’S HIGHEST MATERNAL MORTALITY
Statistically, the greatest threats to South Sudanese women’s survival are pregnancy and childbirth:
- Maternal mortality rates are the highest in the world.
- One in seven South Sudanese women will die in pregnancy or childbirth, often because of infections, haemorrhaging or obstructed births without access to medical care.
All of the women interviewed said they wanted to have as many children as possible. “There is no limit; if I can have 15 or 20, then I will,” one female interviewee said.
During the independence struggle, childbearing was encouraged as part of the war effort.
Married women are expected to have children every three years until menopause.
HUNGER TO WORSEN
However, the majority of women interviewed perceived hungeras their biggest threat.
South Sudanese women eat whatever food is leftover after the men and children in the house have finished.
- One in three South Sudanese are either moderately or severely food insecure, according to the U.N.
- Prices of staple foods, such as maize and sorghum, jumped by 100 to 250 per cent between 2010 and 2011.
- Hunger is expected to worsen in 2012, with the U.N. predicting a 40 to 60 per cent drop in cereal production.
The report draws on interviews and focus groups conducted in South Sudan in 2010 and 2011.
It calls for a more people-centred approach to security, rather than the traditional military notion of state security, to safeguard women’s lives in South Sudan.