A Powerful Effect: Addressing Gender-Based Violence in South Sudan


In solidarity with 16 Days of Activism, Dan Alder, CARE International in South Sudan’s recently-arrived advocacy and communications officer, set out to understand the circumstances of women and girls in the country and meet some of the people working with CARE programs to improve those circumstances. This is what he found.

South Sudan is the world’s newest nation and one of its most hostile environments in which to come of age as a woman. On top of some of the world’s worst poverty, most women endure a repressive male-dominated culture that seems intent on keeping them in their traditional outdoor kitchens. They toil endlessly over the manual tasks of keeping house with no electricity or running water: scrubbing clothes, pounding raw grains into edible flour, ranging widely to collect bundles of sticks to make fire, stooping with bundles of twigs to sweep dust and leaves from the hardened dirt around their huts and carrying heavy, recycled containers of untreated water over long distances, balanced with incredible poise on their heads.

That is not to mention bearing and caring for their children, cooking the meals and otherwise tending to the needs of their husbands.

They are held down not only by custom but also by a lack of basic healthcare and education, little access to economic opportunity and marginalization from political decision-making at all levels of society. According to the Statistical Yearbook for South Sudan, the world’s youngest nation has its highest maternal mortality rate, at 2,054 per 100,000 live births, and one of its highest infant mortality rates, at 69.97 per 1,000 live births.

The Famine Early Warning Systems Network characterizes about two-thirds of the population as being “stressed” or “in crisis” in terms of food security, and only 28 percent of women report ever having been in a classroom. A baseline survey of gender-based violence (GBV) in three states of South Sudan just completed by CARE found that GBV is both widespread and shrouded in secrecy. The study, carried out with support from the United Nations Children’s Fund, found that rural women and girls were routinely being raped, beaten and psychologically abused and then told by relatives to suffer in silence lest they upset family unity or lose any chance of getting married.

The GBV survey also found that girls were treated as property, sold off at a very early age to the highest bidder in cows, cash or both in a practice called “booking.” The girl can then be claimed by an older man for marriage to himself or his son as early as her first menstrual cycle. Although a girl’s family typically will insist the ‘booker” wait a year or two after that to claim his bride, the girl is given no choice in the matter. She can be beaten or even held in tribal jail if she resists the transaction.

True to its global mission of focusing on one of the world’s most underutilized resources – its women – to lift entire communities out of poverty, CARE is trying to effect change in South Sudan by raising awareness about GBV and by empowering women and girls to change their own lots. A dedicated staff of South Sudanese project officers has been trained by the organization and is working closely with local government officials and service providers to extend access to basic services and healthcare and to provide women with economic opportunity and a voice in their communities.

In visiting project sites in Panyagor, Jonglei, I met women like Rebecca Achol Atem, who with CARE’s support is attending to the needs of women and children at the Twic East Country Health Department. She filled me in on the dire situation of women in surrounding villages and stressed the need to take the message that women have rights directly to isolated rural communities. “They know nothing” about their rights, Ms Achol said. “They are not aware.”

Midwife Deborah Ayor was too busy with her latest delivery at the CARE supported clinic to sit for an interview, but her actions spoke volumes as she coached 23-year-old Aduk Diar though the birthing of her fourth child, and then gently encouraged healthy bonding by almost immediately uniting the two through nursing.

I met large groups of women seated in the shade of the largest available tree around blue metal boxes that served as the banks of their Village Savings & Loan Associations (VSLAs). I listened to Apajok Rual Bul, who told me her husband was skeptical of her involvement in a business venture until he found out how much money she could save and contribute to the family income. VSLAs are a staple of CARE’s efforts to promote the economic empowerment of South Sudanese women.

Community Hygiene Promoter Deborah Athok, who is 21, told me she once was too shy to break with custom and speak to people outside her family. But now she goes village to village, hut to hut, spreading the message of good hygiene to families she has never met.

In Jonglei’s state capital, Bor, I met visually-impaired Nyajima Lony Bochok, until recently a refugee with her two children in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum. Ms. Lony, who heads her household without the presence of a man, was in one of 65 families of highly-vulnerable returnees who benefited from CARE’s shelter program, with support from the UN High Commission for Refugees. She allowed me to inspect the stand-alone shelter in an existing peri-urban community. The following day, I watched as her daughter led her to the front of a handover ceremony at a hotel in town, and Ms. Lony both thanked the officials and dignitaries gathered for the event and urged them to do more for both the vulnerable returnees and the poor communities they now call home.

“I am blind, and I do not have power,” Ms. Lony told the gathering, a local news crew’s camera almost in her face. “But it is more powerful to sit in your own place, in your own shelter. I have actually gained hope in life.”

All of the women mentioned in this note had a powerful effect on me.

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Photos: © 2013 Dan Alder/CARE