ARLINGTON, Virginia, United States, June 14 (IPS) – August of this year will mark the first Marriage anniversary of the end of the civil war in South Sudan, but recent outbreaks of violence suggest peace is far away to be carried out. These attacks by armed groups include cases of sexual violence against women and girls.
Sexual and gender-based violence (GBV) continues to be a prominent feature of the conflict in South Sudan, threatening the livelihoods and human rights of women and girls.
UNICEF reports that approximately 65% of women and girls in South Sudan have experienced physical or sexual violence in their lifetime. These forms of GBV can leave women and girls with serious mental and physical health problems.
Why is the rate of sexual violence so high in South Sudan? According to human rights experts, the answer lies in a fundamental part of South Sudan’s local economy: the bride price.
In South Sudan, if a man wishes to marry a woman, his family will have to pay for her, often in cows or goats, depending on her negotiated value. Once married, women are expected to have many children, including daughters who are seen as assets for acquiring more livestock.
As a result, early and forced marriages are common with over 50 percent of girls married before the age of 18. Many young girls are married off to elderly suitors because these men have more property.
The objectification and commodification of women in South Sudanese society enables a culture in which GBV is accepted and normalized. Traditional gender roles and conditions of poverty support the practice of paying the dowry price.
The lack of women’s rights in South not only causes suffering, but also challenges efforts to promote peace. Cultural notions that women are housewives and mothers of children are at the root of inequity.
Only 7 percent of girls complete primary school and less than 2 percent go to high school. Families may also fear that girls will be sexually assaulted on their way to school, reducing their value and the price of the dowry. GBV prevents girls from chasing their dreams and keeps families trapped in generational poverty.
The return on education deserves to reassess the importance given to the payment of the dowry. Studies show that just one year of primary education increases women’s wages by up to 20% later in life.
If South is to experience significant economic development, women and girls must have access to education. “Women have the opportunity to help make this nation a stable and peaceful country,” South Sudanese activist Rita Lopidia said at the opening ceremony of the Women Building Peace Award. Gender equity is inextricably linked to achieving stability in South Sudan.
It is imperative that the government of South Sudan take action to reduce the prevalence of gender-based violence and increase access to education. Tackling the root of this problem begins with regulating the price of dowry.
Excessive dowry prices are a burden on both men and women. Men who cannot afford the dowry price experience a sense of inadequacy and social isolation. Young people in the village put their lives in danger during cattle raids on neighboring tribes in order to get married.
Women experience violence in the form of physical and sexual violence resulting from the valuation of their value in terms of livestock. By targeting the social norms that perpetuate these levels of violence, South Sudan can inspire a movement towards rehabilitation and reconstruction.
While current perceptions will not change overnight, community efforts to educate and raise awareness about gender-based violence will lay the groundwork for establishing sustainable laws and policies on women’s rights. If women can become workshop leaders, teachers and decision-makers in the implementation of peace accords, South Sudan can imagine a country that meets the needs of all of its people.
The real price of marriage in South Sudan is the opportunity to achieve peace and stability. Although the dowry price is usually paid in cows and goats, families also sacrifice the welfare of their daughters and higher potential income.
The rise in physical and sexual violence in recent weeks indicates that South Sudan is at risk of relapsing into full-scale conflict. If South Sudan is to continue on the path of peacemaking and change the conditions of underdevelopment, dowry price regulation must be on the agenda.
Hanna Hassan is an undergraduate student at the University of Virginia, currently an intern at the High Atlas Foundation.
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