Nice girls don’t use carry phones. They don’t dabble in social media.
They don’t go to high school and university either. At least, that is a
powerful view in many deeply conservative South Sudanese communities.
In South Sudan, where girls and women often have little power over their
own fates, they are often told that educated girls turn out disrespectful.
They may start questioning the words of their fathers, uncles and brothers,
or even disobey them.
So instead many girls are “sent to the village.” An entire layer of
children are torn from their families and sent away to relatives in tiny
rural settlements where there are no schools. The reason: they’ll be sold
for cows, which are given to the men of the family.
“My brother told me I should go to the village because girls do not study.
He said when they study, they become prostitutes. It’s only he who can
study,” said Kiden, 16, who was 13 when her brother sent her to the
village. “When they take you to the village, they’ll find a husband for
you.” (It is not her real name.)
I have not met a girl or woman in South Sudan who supports the ancient
tradition of bride prices. Kiden’s mother had no power in the family to
stop her son sending the girl away. She did the only thing she could.
“When I told her I was supposed to go to the village, she said I should
escape, and make my way back to town.” Kiden found shelter with an NGO,
Confident Children Out of Conflict which runs a shelter for vulnerable
children and offered her a safe place to live so that she can go to school.
For many men in traditional communities, girls are a commodity, exchanged
for the cows that their brothers need to marry. If they are not sold, their
brothers will never marry, and the cycle perpetuates itself.
The national adult literacy rate in South Sudan is 27%. But only 2.5% of
girls get to secondary level according to UNICEF, and the completion rate
is tiny, although no data is available.
Girls are taught from childhood to aspire to be a good and obedient wife,
and to know how to cook and clean.
At the University of Juba in the South Sudanese capital, the few women on
campus have overcome hefty barriers. In final year computer science last
year, there were just two female students.
Lily Akol is a rare breed: a female part-time lecturer in the Faculty of
Mass Communication at the University of Juba.
“Some of it is culture, whereby girls’ education is not valued. As a girl,
from a young age, you are told to focus on being a good wife. As a girl
student, you won’t have time to do your homework because your mother will
want you to cook and wash and clean. Girls are taught that when you grow up
you will find a decent man to take care of you.
“Boys’ education is the priority.
“There’s a stigma in our culture that educated girls are seen as not ‘good’
enough. Once you go and get educated you are not seen as a good traditional
African or South Sudanese girl.”
To traditionalists, a girl moving independently through society and sitting
alone with groups of men is seen as promiscuous.
“Our culture has a certain perception of girls and women that when you are
educated, you travel around alone, you go alone, you sit with men, so when
people see that, they always equate that with prostitutes,” Akol said.
Even those girls lucky enough to be have their parents’ support to go to
school face other insidious barriers. When Suzy Anyiri, 18, an electrical
engineering student at Juba Technical Secondary School, gets home, her two
brothers dash out of the house to play soccer for hours, while she remains
indoors washing their clothes, cleaning the house and cooking their dinner.
It takes three hours to finish her chores, before she snatches two hours
In the morning she has to rise at 5.30 to bath and dress her brothers and
cook their breakfast.
“Sometimes it affects my education, because I don’t have enough time to
study my books and my revision. My marks are lower. I’m trying my level
best. But if I had more time I could do more practice. And all the
housework that I have to do means my marks are low.”
The point of education is that it changes a person, and grows their mind.
But many South Sudanese don’t like the way it can change a girl.
“Another stigma is that educated women are arrogant and disrespectful
because the culture is that there is a man at home who you fully obey: Your
father or your uncle or your husband. Once you refuse to obey, then you are
seen as disrespectful,” said the lecturer in Mass Communications, Akol.
“Education gives you the power to disobey and there’s a stigma attached to