Domestic Violence in South Sudan - An excerpt from The Guardian

Gender violence is rife in Warrap state, where girls can be married off for 150 cows and it is considered a sin for men to do chores. Will an experimental programme of group discussions change anything?

Bakhita lifts her T-shirt to show her scars: crisscrossed wounds snaking from the base of her neck to the bottom of her spine. “My husband beat me for anything. This time he whipped me so badly I had to go to hospital. But when I came back he had another wife.” Bakhita, 29, married young.

“I was 14 when my parents told me I must leave their home and go to a new place – my husband’s. The next day I left. Can you imagine? I had no idea how to keep a house or what was expected of a wife in marriage,” she says. She went to her husband’s parents for help. By this time she had three children. “They told me I could stay there and they would feed us but only if I did not deny my husband sex when he came to visit. Because of this I had three more children.”

Eventually Bakhita’s husband abandoned her, leaving her dependent on her brother for support. “I am so unhappy because my brother forced my 15-year-old daughter to marry. I hear they treat her very badly and she is beaten. I am so sad. I tell my two youngest daughters every day I do not want this to happen to them. When they grow up my son will be responsible for them. I say to him, ‘Look at your father. Do not allow them to marry a man like him.’ My son will be my legacy.”

This is not only a promise she’s made to herself and her children, it is a commitment she has made to the entire community of Mading Kantok, the remote home of semi-nomadic cattle traders belonging to the Dinka tribe in Warrap state, South Sudan.

According to the Organisation For Children’s Harmony, a local NGO, the only way a girl can avoid being married off early “is if her mother doesn’t disclose to the father that she has started menstruating. Girls have economic benefit attached to them because one girl can be married in exchange for 150 cows”.

Domestic violence is rife in South Sudan. The 2014 state of the world’s children report UNICEF says 79% of South Sudanese women believe a husband has the right to hit his wife. Anjelina, 32, a mother of five, was married at 15 to a man twice her age who already had two wives. “I had no idea about sex. My wedding night felt like digging at the dry soil. I learned that if husbands want you to bring food or water you do it without complaining, even if you are heavy with pregnancy.”

A community engagement officer says men beat their wives as a show of masculinity. “Since I was six years old I was taught this is how it is…”

An experimental project has brought together 200 women and men to take part in 15 weeks of group discussions about rape, domestic violence and forced marriage. Participants also learn techniques for non-violent communication. At the end of the project, each person makes a promise. At first the women “were quiet, fearing they would be chased away if they spoke”, but by the end were confidently coming up with ideas such as having women sit on tribal courts. The latter process will soon be underway locally, if permission is granted from the ministry of social development.

The men’s promises were along the lines of: “I will help my wife, I will cook, I will not beat my wife, I will wash the utensils.” For Awak, who now cooks at home – to the initial horror of his family – this is the overall goal. “Gender violence isn’t just about men and women, it is about an imbalance of power – and from that all violence comes. By starting with these changes at home, we will have a calmer and more peaceful community generally. This is what I want for future generations.”