Education Transforms Lives of Sudanese Women
JUBA, South Sudan/GENEVA, 6 March 2012 (LWI) – “If you have an education, you value your life,” says Mary Abuk Dow.
Only one in six women in South Sudan are fortunate enough to have an education and those who do, know their worth. Women like Dow are determined and have an imposing presence. You meet them often in South Sudan as well as in refugee camps outside the country and even further afield.
Dow’s confidence springs from a combination of education and the challenges that life has dealt her. When she was only eight years old, she fled, along with her mother, three brothers and a sister, from her home town of Panyagor in Jonglei State. Back then, as it is now, the town was caught up in inter-tribal conflict.
Her family started walking towards neighboring Kenya, often hiding in the bush along the way. They drifted across the country fleeing violence in one place and another.
Dow says that at one point, her mother become seriously ill, so she had to care for her younger brothers and sister.
The family mostly survived by eating and selling their cattle. Over time, much of the herd was stolen, leaving Dow’s family with few resources.
Seeking stability and an education for their children after five years on the run, Dow’s parents headed to Kakuma refugee camp in northwest Kenya.
Living in Kakuma transformed Dow’s life. Like many Sudanese, she completed secondary school in the camp run by The Lutheran World Federation (LWF) and, 18 years after leaving her village, she returned to Panyagor. She now works for the LWF not far from the village where she was born.
Women are better off in Kakuma, because they are supported by organizations like the LWF and are entitled to resources, says Dow. Back in South Sudan they are not as lucky.
Years of Civil War
“When you look at South Sudan, it is the women who are suffering. Most women never go to school,” she says.
Dow says that men in South Sudan have forgotten how women sustained families during the years of civil war. While their husbands were absent, they took care of the children. A woman might wait 20 years for her husband to return, only to learn that he had been killed.
Some women are beaten by their husbands and if a woman refuses a marriage, her family might beat her. “Women have no right to refuse marriage,” says Dow.
She herself was married at the age of 19, but it was her education that made her life different to that of millions of other Sudanese women.
The main roles of many women in the community are to cook and collect firewood but since becoming educated Dow is aware of her intellectual capacities. “I know I can do whatever men do,” she says.
Although women in South Sudan are not protected, if they are empowered, they can speak up for their rights, something Dow is well aware of.
“I have a right to say no,” she says. “I know how to claim my rights. If a man says something that is not okay with me, I know how to say no, but [many other women] don’t know how to claim their rights [and] they have no resources to feed themselves or their children,” she says.
Dow’s husband is studying hundreds of kilometers away from where she lives with her mother and her youngest child. Although as one of two women among some 30 staff in Panyagor Dow gets lonely, she says she has no complaints because her job allows her to support her family.
Her personal experience has given her a feminist perspective towards her work. She says that programs need to target women because communities will often elect only (male) chiefs and young men to participate.
Dow notes that women also need formal schooling and vocational training. “Farming groups would help women support their families with the food that they grow or they can sell it to earn money,” she says.
“Women have to be strong, because they are the ones who serve the community,” she notes. Although she has three brothers who are working, she is the one who supports her mother and father.
Despite the situation of women in South Sudan, Dow is like most South Sudanese these days–she is hopeful. She hopes that, in the future, education will give women in the country a stronger voice in society and more control over resources.
For her, education and gender equality are the keys to lasting peace.
“I hope that our community will change. I hope that people will understand peace. I hope that people will go to school, because people who go to school value their life and value peace. I hope peace in the future will be sustainable through education.”
(Written for LWI by Melany Markham in Juba, South Sudan)
Read more about the LWF and women at: http://www.lutheranworld.org/lwf/index.php/tag/women