Last edited: March 27, 2005

In War-Torn Southern Sudan, Women Battle for an Education

Considered the property of their families, girls struggle against cultural mores to stay in school.

Los Angeles Times, March 21, 2005

By Robyn Dixon, Times Staff Writer

RUMBEK, SUDAN—He watched the girl as she passed by each day, an enigma. It never occurred to him that she might be going to school, a rarity in southern Sudan. He decided he had to have her.

So John Benykor paid 20 cows to her family to wed her. Thus began Martha Yar’s lonely struggle for the right to be educated, get a job and live her own life.

Here in war-torn southern Sudan, women are the property of their fathers, brothers or husbands. Few go to school, and the only equation most ever learn is how many cattle they are worth when they are sold as brides.

But by 19, Yar had worked her way through most of primary school, and dreamed of college. She begged her older brother, her guardian, not to sell her, but he had his own eye on a bride, and he needed cows to buy the woman. He beat his sister and threatened to kill her unless she consented to the marriage.

Yar ran away three times. Finally, Benykor, an uneducated former rebel soldier, kidnapped her. “I cried. I was kicking,” she said. “I was angry and screaming.”

After 21 years of civil war, Sudan’s Muslim-dominated government in the north recently signed a peace deal with the rebels in the largely animist and Christian south. They now must transform themselves from an armed movement into a largely autonomous government.

Although many people hope that peace will mean more public services and economic opportunities, even advocates see little prospect of rapid change for women, whose plight is due as much to the culture of the region as to the ravages of war.

With early marriages the norm, only 1% of women in southern Sudan finish primary school, and 88% are illiterate. More than one in nine die in pregnancy or childbirth, according to UNICEF.

If raped, they must marry their attackers. If they commit adultery, they are jailed. They have no right to divorce. If widowed, they are assets to be inherited by male relatives, like a house or a herd of animals. They have no ethnic identity of their own, but take their husband’s.

Akur Ajuoi, child law reform officer at UNICEF in the town of Rumbek, runs a program to try to convince tribal chiefs of the benefits of letting girls finish school. She said the only advantage they saw was that fathers could charge more cows to marry their daughters. But other than that most chiefs see no intrinsic value in sending girls to school because they still oppose letting girls get a higher education, allowing women to take jobs outside the home, or changing their status as men’s property.

“They seem to be very resistant,” Ajuoi said. “Women are not allowed to go out of the households or into public life. They have no public role.”

Rose Baaco, program manager for a community improvement program run by the rebels’ social policy arm, believes addressing women’s rights is not a high priority for the new government. It is preoccupied, she said, with building roads and offices and filling government positions.

“When the [southern] government was setting its priorities, we didn’t hear anything about women and children,” Baaco said.

When Yar, now 21, was introduced to her prospective husband, 15 years her senior, she was horrified, and determined to finish her schooling. Even when he promised to let her finish school after they got married, she refused his proposal.

“As a girl I could pursue my education and do many things. But as a wife I’d be restricted and have to do what my husband said,” she said in an interview. “I really wanted to go to university and study theology and English.”

Yar turned to the school headmaster and teachers to beg their support. She ran away. She became notorious in Rumbek for the vehemence of her protest, which was unheard of. Then came the shock of the kidnapping, in December 2002.

After paying Yar’s brother the 20 cows, Benykor gathered neighbors, relatives and friends and arrived at Yar’s home after dark. She was in bed wearing only underpants. They grabbed her and dragged her out.

Yar was locked in Benykor’s house for a week. “They put guards there for seven days to stop me running away,” she said.

Several schoolteachers tried to convince her that Benykor was serious about letting her go back to class. Seeing no way out, she gave up and accepted him.

After they married, her husband beat her every day, telling her he was determined to break her stubborn spirit. She felt nothing but hatred, and contempt for his lack of education.

Refusing to give in, two weeks later she was back at school, taking her exams.

At Rumbek girls’ primary school there are only five girls in the top class, Grade 8, and few have ever made it to secondary school. One Grade 8 student, Victoria Akon, 18, who wants to become a doctor, said the biggest topic of conversation among her peers was how to avoid marriage and stay at school.

“Most of my classmates were forced by their parents into early marriage. They say they were given no choice, ‘but please don’t be like us,’ “ Akon said. “Girls of southern Sudan want to be educated and they want to be like other girls in the world, sharing and governing the country.”

Martha Yar now has a 16-month-old daughter, Sara. At first Yar wanted to take the baby to school on her back, but her husband forbade it. After she spent seven months at home with the infant, her husband found a 5-year-old niece to look after her child.

By June 2004, Yar was back in Grade 7, struggling to satisfy her husband, deflect his family’s criticisms and quench her own thirst for knowledge.

Her husband wants more children, but she doesn’t, fearing it will further undermine her chances of education. She longs for a divorce, but knows her family would never agree: That would mean they would have to return the 20 cows they received.

Some women, in a desperate bid for divorce, commit adultery in the hopes that will free them from marriage. Many of them end up jailed.

Adomic William, 20, ran off with a man her parents did not approve of, and got pregnant. Once pregnant, she could not be married off to a young man, but to give birth out of wedlock would bring shame to the family. Her parents married her off to an elderly man with three wives.

After giving birth to a son, she ran back to her lover. Her family cursed her, refusing ever to visit. When her son died of a fever at age 3, her lover abandoned her, leaving her helpless.

William said she committed adultery after her lover left to end her marriage with the elderly man. Like most southern Sudanese women, she had no money, and was jailed for not paying the fine of seven cows. After serving her six-month jail term, she says her only hope is to beg her parents to let her come home.

“I loved a man and my parents told me to stop that love, and I didn’t accept it. Then my son died, and now I’m left with no son, no husband and no love. It’s all my own fault,” she said, sitting on a mat in a bare dirt yard in Rumbek prison with about two dozen other women, most convicted of adultery.

Matters such as divorce, rape, adultery, theft and child custody are decided in tribal courts ruled by uneducated chiefs. Ajuoi, the UNICEF officer, says women are disadvantaged in these courts, but judges argue that rapid reform to improve women’s rights would so outrage the men it would be counterproductive.

“It is something we cannot do away with immediately because our society is somewhat traditional. Girls are seen as a source of wealth, and people sell their daughters to get wealth,” said Deputy Chief Justice Bullen Panchol of the Court of Appeal in South Sudan.

“The traditions that we have must go through a period of injustice in a way, and that process must be allowed to evolve. If we rationalize everything according to international norms, people would be scared,” he added. “They would resist and they would continue to do these things illegally.”

Three months ago, Yar’s husband stopped her schooling entirely and told her he would take her to his home village, where there would be just housework.

“I’m still angry with him, because he broke his promise to let me go to school. He says, ‘If I let you get an education, then maybe you’ll look down on me because I’m not educated, and you’ll want to leave me.’ I say, ‘Now that you’re keeping me in the house, you are not educated and I am not educated. How does it help?’

“Before he married me, I was in school, I was not being beaten and I had my own life. Now I have lost all those things and I feel terribly bitter. There is no way I will get my freedom.”

She says Benykor does not hit her during the day when neighbors might see, but waits until night. She no longer screams, because she knows no one will help.

“He says, ‘Until you stop being stubborn, I’ll keep on beating you,’” Yar said. She has no hope that her family will do anything.

“My family have equated my life to 20 cows,” she said. “But I insist, my life is not equal to 20 cows.”

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