When Girls Are Commodified, Education Becomes A Luxury

Most extremely patriarchal and pastoralist communities are known for prioritizing the marriage of girls for bride price which becomes the only measure of their worth. As a result, a lot of these communities have low literacy rates amongst females.

Africa | ALUEL ATEM | south sudan
Photo: Crown the Woman-South Sudan

Over the coming weeks, we’ll be sharing blog posts from Aluel Atem, a Development Economist and African Feminist Activist in South Sudan. Check out her full website here, and keep your eye out for more of her work in the next few weeks!

Words by Aluel Atem

Growing up, because girls are socialised to be responsible and learn to fix things from such a young age. I spent a lot of time around my mother, aunties, elder female cousins being taught how to cook, care for a baby, how to “behave” among other things as it’s a mandatory part of “future potential wife material” mentorship process. That enabled me from a young age to watch and listened to women share all kinds of stories

My mother was one of those few underage girls who joined the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M). She is a member of the only female battalion which was known as the “Katiba Banat”. These women maintained such a strong friendship bond even after most of them left the army and got married. As children and to date, everyone of them that we were introduced to was an aunty, it was when I got older that I realised these were actually just mom’s friends, not actual blood sisters or cousins . It was and still such an admirable sisterhood.

I learnt a lot from just being around these phenomenal women, listening to their experiences and stories. From all their stories, one thing however was evident, and that was the fact that most of these women had such mind-blowing aspirations and dreams that seem to have been shuttered the moment they decided to get married . Only a few of them remained active in their military careers even after they were married, for many, those marriages were the end of their dreams.

I spent a lot of my childhood imagining and wondering what these women’s life choices would be if they had had the opportunities to go further with their education and, or pursued their careers to date alongside their male counterparts. If only they went far to be self-sufficient enough. Woman who sacrificed and locked up so much potential for the sake of their families; a decision that was never recognised, appreciated nor honored.

All I see are powerful women who seem to have more regrets and pain, pain I wish I could somehow take away. Growing up, I felt like my mother was projecting her hopes and dreams on me, pushing me to be everything she wished she could have been if she had the opportunities I have. I could feel that she knew if I took the opportunities I have seriously, I would have a different life than she did.

South Sudan female literacy rate is 19.2%

My mother was not the only one, this was the narrative for almost every woman I knew growing up and still a reality. South Sudan female literacy rate is 19.2% according to UNESCO Institute for Statistics. I have a voice today because I was raised in a home where I was valued and had access to the same opportunities as my brothers. Among those opportunities, I had access to not just education but quality education, especially after my family moved to Uganda where I studied from high school to university.

There are several factors affecting the Education sector in South Sudan but from my experiences and years of engagement with adolescent girls and boys, their educators and guardians, the most outstanding one is, the underfunding of the Education sector which has transferred the whole burden to communities already robbed of opportunities to provide for their families by the protracted conflict. This makes it even harder for those willing to prioritize education as a basic need, especially for their female children. Education is a basic need but in South Sudan, it is a privilege.

When girls have to walk long distances to and from school to learning environments that are not very female friendly (from menstrual hygiene point of view to lack of female role models/mentors in schools as females make up only 12% of the country’s teaching population), balance school with domestic work, and the questionable quality of education among other challenges that girls personally battle with not to mention the family, communal and societal barriers they must break, Education just starts to feel like one additional burden these young girls have to deal with every day.

In this capitalistic patriachal society, sending children to school is expensive but sending girls to school feels even more expensive. Most extremely patriarchal and pastoralist communities are known for prioritizing the marriage of girls for bride price which becomes the only measure of their worth. As a result, a lot of these communities have low literacy rates amongst females. There is no doubt that international organizations such as UNICEF-South Sudan, Plan International among others and programs such as Girls Education South Sudan (GESS) funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID) have and continue to do the most to push for Education especially for girls in South Sudan. However, the Education sector is driven and led by donors and the private sector given the limited commitment from the government in terms of resources.

The National Budget allocated to the education sector in South Sudan has consistently been below the national targets of 10% by South Sudan’s General and Higher Education Acts 2012 and 20% as recommended by the Global Partnership for Education.

From UNICEF South Sudan Education-Budget-Brief 2019,  the National Budget allocated to the Education sector has consistently been below the national targets of 10% by South Sudan’s General and Higher Education Acts 2012 and 20% as recommended by the Global Partnership for Education. Regionally and Internationally UNESCO database of government expenditure shows that South Sudan has the lowest investment in public education, standing at less than 1% of real GDP as per 2017.

South Sudan can only scrupulously realize change if it prioritizes the delivery of services in the Education sector with support from the international community but not the other way around. My hope for South Sudan lies in the Education sector, the transformation of the conflict and the various social norms limiting young girls and women from realizing and utilizing their full potential is where change will happen. All most South Sudanese girls need is more education opportunities to harness their potential and voice. I cannot turn back the clock for my mother, but changing the narrative for as many girls is the only gift I can ever give her in return.


Africa | ALUEL ATEM | south sudan

Aluel M.B Atem is a Development Economist who has a keen interest in Gender and Conflict Transformation. She is an African Feminist Activist who believes change is not only limited to offline and in-person engagements, media too is an effective tool for social change. She utilizes every space she occupies to initiate and or challenge narratives that reinforce gender stereotypes and roles. She hosts Gender Talk 211 an African-Feminist platform where South Sudanese explore and share resources, knowledge, experiences and skills that facilitate conversations on Gender. She co-founded Crown the Woman-South Sudan and currently sits on the Ceasefire and Transitional Security Arrangements Monitoring and Verification Mechanism Board as the South Sudan Women’s Coalition for Peace Representative.

Aluel globally facilitates trainings on Conflict Transformation Skills, coaches and mentors other trainers and facilitators. When she is not catching flights from country to country to facilitate trainings or doing any of the above, she writes for African Feminism and blogs here on her personal website about issues that affect the social status of women and girls especially in South Sudan.

Aluel is grateful for a lot of things and coffee for sure stays on top of that list.

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