South Sudan: a battle of the sexes

Kerry Akers Conflict, Emergencies, Gender, Humanitarian

Concepts of masculinity and femininity are deeply embedded in cultural beliefs and practices which underpin violence against women and inequality. Here Protection Project Manager, Kerry Akers, reflects on the nuances between gender and the roles of protector, victim and perpetrator in conflict affected areas of South Sudan.

When the village is attacked the boys big enough to fight run with the men to the next frontline to try to protect their families.

When the village is attacked women tell their children to run ahead, whilst they gather the infants too small to walk. Despite the risk that they may never find their children amongst the thousands of displaced people hiding in the swamps, the women understand that this is the children’s safest option, this is how they protect them.

When the village is attacked, a mother sacrifices herself to a group of soldiers who are dragging her daughter away. This is how she protects her.

Days and days away there are islands where the women and their children will be safe. When word reaches the islands, the women there begin to tie knots in the reeds which lead to the islands, to let the fleeing women and children know they have reached safety.

Days and days away women prepare extra food for the women and children who have walked so far to reach safety.

Days and days away the food runs out and people begin to die. Women walk into the swamps to gather plant roots, they travel passed the armed men who rape them, they gather their food and return to the island. Their family will not starve tonight, this is how they protect them.

Days and days away an old man offers his hand in marriage to the 13 year old girl, for the price of 40 cows. She accepts and her family eats, this is how she protects them.

Women and girls are protectors in South Sudan. Having worked in South Sudan on protection for the last two years, this is what I have observed. Women employ the coping strategies described above to protect themselves, their families and their communities. Such sacrifices could be described as bravery and yet the binary narrative which dominates the discussion regarding women in South Sudan is one of victimhood.

Such sacrifices could be described as bravery and yet the binary narrative which dominates the discussion regarding women in South Sudan is one of victimhood.Famine is predicted for some of the most conflict affected parts of South Sudan in the coming months. Both men and women lose their lives to hunger, but women will feel the effects of famine more than the men. Women will continue to be fed last in the family household, not because of their sex, but because of their gender.

Whilst millions of dollars are pumped into humanitarian programmes which address inequality through ‘building women’s capacity’ to do the things that men in their society do, like fishing or business, barely any money is spent on changing concepts of masculinity. Without addressing concepts of masculinity, what it means in a particular society to be a man, there is very little chance that violence against women and men, sexual or otherwise, will be understood or challenged.

During conflict, gender dynamics are often skewed or magnified. The fluidity conflict can catalyse in terms of gender relations presents an opportunity to challenge concepts of masculinity and femininity. Whilst hyper-masculinity is reinforced and encouraged throughout conflict, war often leaves many men in charge of household duties such as childcare and cooking, traditionally female activities, similarly, whilst many women are subject to extreme violence at the hands of men throughout conflict, many are thrust into traditionally male roles, such as head of household or soldier.

Complex historical gender relations in South Sudan exist in terms of peacemaking and power and cannot be reduced to simplistic stereotypes of women as victims and men as perpetrators. Amongst the Nuer and Dinka, women were traditionally both protectors and protected in times of war, they could not be targeted during conflict and their protected status meant that they were able to shield men from being targeted on the battlefield. Yet one of the most influential voices for the warring parties is a female prophet, who fiercely promotes violence on an ethnic basis, whilst the similarly
influential male prophet preaches peace.

South Sudan is one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a woman; rape is used as a weapon of war; girls are routinely abducted and forced into sexual slavery; an adolescent girl in South Sudan is three times more likely to die in childbirth than complete primary school. The role of women and girls can only be improved if we re-examine the role of men too.

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Photo credit: Nick Lacey

Author: Kerry Akers
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.