SOUTH SUDAN: Women Perpetuate Culture of Submission

Published on IPS, by Miriam Gathigah, December 17, 2009.

TORIT, southern Sudan, Dec 17 (IPS) – All day Rosalinda Duany sells vegetables from her stall at the local market, earning a living to feed her family while her husband spends his days idling with his friends. But when his days become too boring and he demands his conjugal rights, Duany wordlessly stops work just to oblige him.

She has lived this way for years, and has not once complained about it because, she says, it is part of her culture to be obedient to her husband.

And she is not the only one who thinks that way. It is not uncommon for women in south Sudan to leave their workplace during work hours, just to return home to feed their husbands and even prepare the water for his bath. 

Walking through most towns such as Juba and Torit, in south Sudan, men can be seen seated in groups playing cards and chatting the day away, as women are busy ensuring there is food for the family. Despite the women’s central role in keeping the family together, culture has deeply skewed the perception of leadership in favour of men.

Having been at war with itself for many years, and with the loss of many lives – particularly those of men – the role of women in south Sudan has largely changed to that of breadwinner and pillar of the family, in a society whose style of governance is still highly patriarchal.

“Because he’s idle all day he keeps himself busy sometimes by demanding his conjugal rights, even though that means me stopping what am doing.”

She says it is part her culture to do whatever her husband demands. But women’s rights activists says it goes further than that and means women still perceive themselves as being inadequate.

“Sadly women are not helpless victims of these circumstances, but active agents in perpetuating this culture. Even where the stability of the home lies squarely on the woman, she still perceives herself as inadequate for roles traditionally deemed suited for men,” says Flora Iliha Matia, vice-chairperson of the Women’s Union of Torit County in Eastern Equatoria state.

“Often we have visited homes and found only women and children. The woman will tell you ‘no one is at home’, because the husband is absent. Culture has it that the man is the head of the household, so a woman can receive visitors but cannot speak on behalf of the family.

“By saying that no one is at home, even though she clearly is, she means to pass the message that she cannot be of any help, since the husband is absent,” said Iliha Matia.

Her remarks are echoed by Agnes Leju, a civil servant in Eastern Equatoria State, who said it was not unusual for a man to pick his wife up from her workplace in order for her to prepare water for him to bath, even if she was busy … //

… A grown woman in south Sudan has no identity other than the one she acquires once she gets married, and traditionally arranged marriages during childhood are common,” Santo continues.

It is key that the south Sudan community shift the political order to accord women space to express themselves, but real change must come from the women themselves. Not only are they in the majority, but also have a women’s movement begun more than three decades ago.

Time will tell how badly Sudanese women want to enjoy the right to be equal partners in governing, but the status quo works against that goal.

It may take a long while before women like Duany realise there are roles for them beyond what culture demands.

“It’s my culture and my duty as a wife to submit to him. We have lived this way for many years, and I haven’t complained even once.” (full text).

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