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Posted on Thursday, October 27, 2005 - 07:11 pm:   

Women of Little Value
Posted by Kevin Sites
on Wed Oct 26,11:35 PM ET Post a Comment Video Audio Photo Essay

In southern Sudan a woman's value is measured in cows, not education.

She attends school every day. Her teacher says she has the best attendance of anyone in the class. It's a promising start for Rebecca Achol, who says she wants to be a medical doctor. The problem is, she is a 40-year-old widow, a mother of four and illiterate.

"I want to have a better future for me and my children," she says.

That's why she's learning how to read now. She didn't go to school when she was younger. Her father didn't allow it. Here in Malual Kan, southern Sudan, an educated girl doesn't get as high a marriage dowry -- or what's called a "bride's price." It is almost always paid in cows.

"We have a saying here," says Abuk Makuei Makuei, head of the Malikon Women's Association, "a father who has a girl child is a rich man."

And richer yet, if he's able to keep his daughter isolated, uneducated and close to home.

The reasons for that thinking -- according to a recent NGO (non-governmental organization) assessment on the plight of southern Sudanese women -- is that a girl who is less exposed to the community is considered fresher, more innocent; a greater prize for a husband.

And girls who go to school are considered more independent, possibly promiscuous -- exposed to ideas that make them disobedient, defiant and overall less valuable as a wife.

These are concepts that have no doubt contributed to an illiteracy rate of nearly 85 percent for women and girls in the region.

In fact, that just seems to be one of the many injustices they suffer. Local customs, traditions and even laws seem to keep women locked into a constant state of servitude and child bearing.

It's against the law in one southern Sudan community for a husband and wife to laugh together in public because, according to a local official, "the wife is the husband's servant, not his equal."

In the same community a man who kills his wife will have to make restitution with a fine of 26 cows. then his debt to society is considered paid.

In talking to most men here -- and many women -- it seems they agree that a man has a right to discipline a woman with physical beatings when she gets out of line -- even if she's not his wife.

A worker for an international aid agency tells the story of what can happen when a woman refuses to be deferential to a man here.

"A group of women were at the water pump," she says, "when an SPLA (Sudan People's Liberation Army) soldier starting pushing women out of the way to take what he felt was his priority position. When some of the women protested and one began to hit him, the soldier fired his gun in the air three times. The police came, bound up the woman who hit the soldier and dragged her to jail, beating her the entire way."

Women whose husbands die are expected to marry a member of the man's family afterward. If she refuses she can lose everything: her home, children and possessions. She's left with no alternative but to return to her own family, who aren't typically enthusiastic about another mouth to feed with no future marriage potential.

In fact, in marriage in southern Sudan, it's men who have the most options, as long as they have the cows to pay for them. A man can have as many wives as he wants. It is not uncommon for someone to have at least two or three. And the richer the man, the more wives he's likely to have. A local SPLA general reportedly has 87.

Traditionally, with each wife, the man will clear an area of land, build a thuckle (grass hut) for the wife -- almost setting her up as a kind of domestic franchise. This way she can bear him children, cultivate a garden, be productive and add to his wealth.

But polygamy, the NGO report states, can contribute to a cycle of domestic abuse, especially if a woman feels she is not getting enough attention or resources from her husband. She may look for it somewhere else, increasing the potential for confrontations and physical violence.

Walking around the town of Malual Kan I notice that woman are doing all of the work, from pumping and carrying water, to thatching the roofs on their huts, cultivating the fields, tending the children, carrying the firewood -- everything. And while all this bustle of activity is going on dozens of men sit together under shade trees, talking, or if they're motivated, playing card or dominos.

In some areas of southern Sudan, however, attitudes toward the value of women are slowly changing to a large degree because of economic conditions created by the 21-year civil war.

The area around Malual Kan was considered a front line during the civil war and Arab militias regularly conducted raiding parties, killing cattle or stealing them and driving them back toward their homes along the northern border.

This decimated the economy here, which was almost completely based on animal wealth. It also had a huge impact on the bride's price. People just did have enough cattle left for marriage dowrys.

"So woman had to become valuable in other ways, not just in the value of cows, but in the value of their education. They had to have earning potential from what they had learned in school," says Abu Makuei Makuei, the Malual Kan women's association leader

Abu Makuei Makuei says her own daughter is a perfect example.

"She is going to marry a man who already has one wife," she says. "The man paid 13 cows for that wife, who is uneducated. My daughter can read and write. He will pay 50 cows for her," she says proudly.

So while the value of a woman here may still be assessed in cows, an education may no longer bring down the asking price.

For 40-year-old widow Rebecca Ahol, whose husband was killed three years ago fighting for the SPLA, cows are not even in the equation any longer. She has four children to care for, she says, and no likely prospects for another marriage.

She has to do it alone now. So for her, the path to becoming a medical doctor will begin with learning to read.

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