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Women’s Status in South Sudan Since 2011 Essay


South Sudan became the newest country following its independence in 2011 but the country has been mired in violence. Patriarchal social practices have become even more acute in the violence-ridden land where women are treated as commodities. Rampant gender-based violence and abuse, child marriage, and sexual exploitation are three main issues faced by women in South Sudan. The three main issues that plague the South Sudanese society are gender-based violence, lack of proper healthcare facility, and illiteracy.

This paper discusses these issues with special focus on South Sudan Women’s Peace Network, a UN sponsored group for gender equality and women empowerment in the country. The organization has worked to empower women in the country. However, providing proper healthcare facility and education to women is immediately necessary to reduce inequality in the South Sudanese society.

In order to understand the reason behind the brutal recurrences of gender-based violence, incidence of child marriage, and rape in South Sudan, it is important to understand the political, social, and economic machinery that has developed in the country since 2011 and how this has aggravated the situation.

Social Condition

The position of women in the socio-cultural structure of South Sudan changed during the years of liberation struggle. Women broke the barriers of age-old patriarchal families and assumed the role of household head. This is because men were fighting a war and women had to take over the role of head of family and bread-earner. Some women were directly engaged in the war in support services such as food suppliers. The war years brought extreme poverty, famine, displacement, and loss of family. There is a high degree of illiteracy among South Sudanese women and the sociocultural perception of girls as a less worthy child is prevalent in the society.

Further, women in the country face health challenges due to inadequate health care facilities available in the country. Poverty and food insufficiency pose a greater challenge as it makes sustenance in rural areas a challenge. Marriage and gender-based violence is rife in South Sudan as the age of adulthood varies widely among tribes. Moreover, prevalence of child marriage and polygamy leaves women socially defenseless. The legal age of marriage is uncertain in the country as it varies between tribes. Generally, a girl that is reaching puberty is regarded as having attained marriageable age. Women are not given the chance to file a legal claim in the judicial system as they are usually transferred to the tribal courts headed by the tribe’s leader.

Economic Condition

The key challenge towards economic empowerment of women in South Sudan is gender inequality in the socio-cultural mindset of the society. Further, women face extreme poverty due to war. They cannot claim their inheritance as the customary laws prohibit it and women are considered incapable to lead a household. Therefore, the lack of empowerment of women is attributable to the economic inequality women face in the country.

Political Condition

Political participation of women in South Sudan is a recent phenomenon as cultural discourse restrains women from involvement in politics. Due to significant patriarchal gender roles prevalent in the country, women were not allowed to enter political arena, which is considered a man’s domain. However, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005 changed the scenario greatly as there was 25 percent women representation at all levels of the government (Edward, 2011).

However, in 2011, there was an increase in women’s participation with 95 female ministers in the national assembly and five women in the council of states (Edward, 2011). However, social and cultural barriers prevent wider participation of women in politics. Others cite women’s lack of education, age, and marital status as an impediment to political participation (Edward, 2011).

Three main Issues Faced by Women

From the above discussion, it is evident that women in South Sudan face gender inequality in almost every facet of life. The lack of political, socio-cultural, and economic empowerment leaves women vulnerable to violent abuse and attack. The three main issues encountered by women in South Sudan are gender-based violence, illiteracy, and poor healthcare facility. The following sections describe how these three issues affect women in that region.

  1. Gender-based violence is an issue that most women face in South Sudan. It takes many forms – sexual violence within and outside marriage, rape in conflict-ridden areas, genital mutilation, trafficking and prostitution. The continued state of war has left women vulnerable. Social inequality is among the primary causes for this inequality. This is one of the chief concerns that will be discussed in detail in the next section.
  2. Lack of health care facilities is a major problem for women in South Sudan. They are among the easiest targets of violence in this country. Genital mutilation, an age-old African tradition has left thousands of women scarred and susceptible to infection. In 2012, South Sudan’s maternal mortality rate was highest in the world (Moszynski, 2012). Pregnant women in South Sudan require health care due to extreme poverty that causes malnutrition, which may render them incapable to support the infants. For example, societal norms prevent pregnant women from eating highly nutritious food such as egg as it is believed to cause miscarriage (United Nations, 2015). There are no proper health care facilities for the sexually abused women and girls (Braunschweiger & Wheeler, 2015). These issues are ignored, as there is a lack of healthcare facilities for women.
  3. Women’s illiteracy in the country is critical. Illiteracy rates in general are low, but the state of women’s literacy is deplorable in South Sudan (Moszynski, 2012). However, efforts from the US agencies and NGOs have increased enrollment in schools at primary levels. Unfortunately, enrolment of girls in primary education facilities is still very low in the country (Moszynski, 2012).

Gender-based Violence

This section looks at the incidence of gender-based violence that has crippled the life of women in South Sudan. Gender-based violence against women strikes them both within and outside the marital relationship. Gender-based violence consists of four main categories – sexual violence, trafficking, prostitution, and genital mutilation.

Sexual violence against women in South Sudan may be categorized into three main groups – domestic sexual violence, rape as a means to enter into marriage, and rape because of violence and displacement in South Sudan (Bubenzer & Stern, 2011). Women in South Sudan have historically been very vulnerable of sexual abuse even within their households. Further, due to the prevalence of child marriage and polygamy in the society, there is a high incidence of domestic abuse of women. A research found that 42% of the women experienced sexual violence perpetrated by their husband or an acquaintance (Oosterom, 2014).

Marital rape is common, as the country’s law does not consider a non-consensual intercourse between married couples as rape (Bubenzer & Stern, 2011). In addition, civil courts do not deal with such complaints, which are usually transferred to the customary courts headed by the tribe’s leader. Tribal courts follow traditional codes of male-controlled family structure, and the perpetrators are rarely punished.

The militarized machismo that developed in post-conflict South Sudan explains the rise of violence against women (Oosterom, 2014). A news report shows that aid workers have discovered that after an attack on a village in South Sudan, 90 women were abducted and only 60 of them returned (Esslemont, 2015). Rampant sexual violence in the South Sudanese Unity States has become common practice (Day, 2015).

War has affected South Sudanese women differently in many ways as compared to men. State sponsored violence against women and girls through rape, abduction, sexual slavery, and forced labor shows the plight of women in South Sudan. Commodification of the woman’s body is rampant as extreme poverty and food insufficiency makes women and girls fall prey to sexual predators (Ensor, 2014). Young girls, as young as six, are trafficked as prostitutes. Some of them engage in prostitution in exchange of food and other necessitates. Girls are also raped and harassed by the police (Ensor, 2014).

Female genital mutilation is a common problem in most of the African countries as it is a very old tradition in the continent (Sambira, 2012). Due to a lack of healthcare facilities, elderly women in villages conduct this ritualistic mutilation (Sambira, 2012). This “operation” leads to scarring and infections throughout their lives.

There are verious reasons for the high incidence of gender-based violence in South Sudan. Researchers believe, lack of education of women and socio-cultural traditions help reinforce this social acceptance of violence against them (Scott, et al., 2013). Further, the customary law in South Sudan does not recognize rape within a marital relationship. The civil justice system is patriarchal in nature and is not in favor of women in case of gender-based violence. According to the 2014 UN report, 79% South Sudanese women justify wife beating (The State of the World’s Children, 2014). Women justify gender-violence, as it is a part of the socio-cultural conditioning.


South Sudan Women’s Peace Network (SSWPN) an organization, aided by the United Nations was set up to ensure that women could overcome the gender inequality in the country and feel the benefits of peace. SSWPN aims to support diverse ethnic identities, gender equality, civil society organizations in South Sudan, and especially women and children who are victims of sexual violence. South Sudanese first women, the wives of the founder of SPLM, John Garang, found the organization. The aim of SSWPN is to establish peace in South Sudan and empower women by giving them healthcare, education, and increasing their participation in governance.

Their aim is to empower South Sudanese women, safeguard human rights, and build civil society in the country. The organization is determined to help South Sudanese women achieve gender, social, and economic equality (South Sudan, 2016). The main aim of the organization is to empower women, bring in gender equality, and increase women leadership in South Sudan to change the patriarchal biases in the society, which are the main perpetrator of rampant violence against women.

SSWPN’s Achievements

The organization works with dislocated women who live in UN shelters and camps and have been abused sexually or have undergone other gender-based crimes (UN Women, 2016). They intend to educate South Sudanese women to help them grow self-reliant. Further, availability of medical help to the abused women, counseling of the victims of sexual crimes and abuse is provided by the organization.

They strive for attaining sustainable solution to women’s plight in South Sudan. Their main contribution lies in areas of women empowerment and participation in governance. Their work has affected participation of women in the political process and women’s involvement in mass movements. Further, the core work of the organization has been to involve women to assist in the peace process in South Sudan.

Analysis – What Should Be Done

One of the foremost issues that ails the South Sudanese society is gender inequality. The perception of women as inferior beings deters the work of most aid organizations in the country. I believe the primary work that should be done is to raise awareness of equality as a human right, irrespective of sex, among the population and especially among women. Once this is established, other problems that ail the society will gradually lessen.

For instance, when a parent understands that girls and boys are equal they will ensure education for both of their children and abstain from child marriage simply for a dowry once their girl reaches puberty. Gender-based violence is further caused by the perception of inferior status of women in the society. Work done by SSWPN directly affects the position of women in South Sudanese society, but they overlook many other grass root issues. Self-reliance is definitely necessary but education and health care should be a key priority.

Immediate Next Step to Improve Position of Women

The immediate steps necessary to improve the position of women in South Sudan are to improve healthcare and remove illiteracy. First, removing illiteracy is necessary as this is a big impediment towards empowerment. Illiteracy prevents women from understanding the misleading social constructs that affect their health and position adversely. For example, UN research shows that illiteracy is directly proportionate to maternal mortality (Moszynski, 2012). In order to improve healthcare in South Sudan, women’s illiteracy must be reduced.

Participation in governance can be increased if there are more educated women. The transitional constitution established after the independence is not sufficient to establish equality for women as they endorse customary laws prevalent in tribal communities that are extremely patriarchal in nature. This incompatibility between new laws and patriarchal customs has left the female population of the country politically vulnerable.

Women representation in politics is insignificant. Women assumed important roles during the civil liberation movement in South Sudan. However, women were completely excluded during the Comprehensive Peace Agreement process. Thus, the women who had earlier assumed prominent roles in the liberation movement and assumed critical social roles faced a fall in their social status since independence.

Globalization and Gender Violence

The status of South Sudanese women shows that one of the main causes of gender-based violence is strict gender inequality. Globalization helps to alter the strict gender roles and change the status of women in patriarchal societies. With globalization, the society and more importantly the women understand the meaning of freedom and equality. They aspire to be something that their traditional condition never allowed. Hence, globalization can be a positive force in changing the gender inequality and status of women in South Sudan.


Education and health care are immediately required to help remove inequality in South Sudan. SSWPN has been working to help women in the country by empowering them through increasing participation in the political process. However, women in the country will not be able to freely participate in political affairs if the socio-cultural inequality prevents them from joining politics.


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Bubenzer, F., & Stern, O. (2011). Hope, Pain & Patience: The Lives of Women in South Sudan. Wynberg, SA: Jacana Media.

Day, A. T. (2015). The U.N. describes the crisis in the world’s newest country, where government forces are raping and burning women alive, as “among the gravest in history”. New York Times. Web.

Edward, J. K. (2011). . Sudan Tribune. Web.

Ensor, M. O. (2014). Displaced girlhood: gendered dimensions of coping and social change among conflict-affected South Sudanese youth. Refuge: Canada’s Journal on Refugees 30(1) , 15-24.

Moszynski, P. (2012). . The Guardian. Web.

Oosterom, M. A. (2014). . IDS Research. Web.

Sambira, J. (2012). Reversing female circumcision in Africa. South Sudan News Agency. Web.

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IvyPanda. (2020) 'Women's Status in South Sudan Since 2011'. 6 September.

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