Sovereignty is a concept that is relevant to all tiers of existence and identity, from the individual to the group, community to the nation. It is inherently tied to the formulation of interests, and to the submission of energies and resources towards their achievement, without external interference. You may ask, what is sovereignty for a child, and the girl child, in particular, as a dependent in the context of a family in South Sudan?
The sovereignty of an individual, and by extension, that of the girl child, is inherently about dignity. It is about rights and choices. In our most of our traditional settings, egalitarianism is what governs interactions within and among the community, and across generations. Each possesses and asserts their dignified self-worth, within a system of rights, responsibilities, and privileges. Each member belongs to the community and is valued and protected. A girl child is prized and accorded a status to which filial and clan pride is tied, and is traditionally pampered and protected from abuse, even from her closest kin. In the same vein, the boy child’s status and activities reflect on the filial and clan pride, and he is at times ostracized or even shunned by the community for perceived or real rebellion. All are expected to adhere to a set of values and desired behaviors. However, modernization has severely affected our traditional systems, so much that current expressions of tradition are often incomplete, and effectively suffer from the exploitation of privileges without the fulfillment of responsibilities. Such is the case mostly with those affected by false machismo, but this is a discussion for another time.
In regards to the dignity and rights of the child in South Sudan, the Transitional Constitution of South Sudan, 2011 (TCSS 2011) speaks volumes. In Article 17(4), it defines the child, as any person under the age of 18 years old. It further enumerates, in the same Article, the rights of the child to include, among others, freedom from abuse; freedom from work that hinders education, health or well-being; freedom from discrimination; and freedom from cultural practices that affects his or her health, welfare, or dignity. Furthermore, Article 29 (2) of the same, accords the child, the right to education, and charges the government with the responsibility of ensuring “free and compulsory education at the primary level.” These Rights of the Child are subject to the right of ethnic and cultural communities to live and raise their children in accordance to their cultures and customs without contravening the Constitution and the laws of the land, as per Article 33 of the TCSS 2011.
While it is the sovereign right of individuals and communities to perpetuate their cultures, it’s important to understand that with the advent of the nation-state, and in response to modernization, some changes will impose themselves on our cultural and customary practices. Suffice to underscore here that our cultures possess essential values and customs that we must cling to and faithfully perpetuate as long as possible. While we must be flexible to weed out the few harmful practices that will hinder our prosperity as individuals, communities, and nation. In equal measure, modernization dawns on us with many of its ills, and we must learn to navigate our way consciously and pick what serves our interests.
Issues in regards to individual sovereignty, such as inequitable attribution of value to contributions, discrimination, and unfair accordance of status or worth, arise as we subjugate personal interests to the interests of a group. The family is necessarily a socialist organ governed by a principle attributed to Karl Marx: “From each according to his [her] ability to each according to his [her] needs!” To fulfill the interests of this filial group, especially in traditional settings, and in subtle ways in the modern context, everyone contributes from child to adult, male and female. However, the most productive of the family usually take for granted the contributions of the least productive, termed dependents. Productive means those who bring the most “tangible goods” to the table. In this equation, services are often not valued, primarily as we accord monetary value to “tangible goods.”
In such a case, the services rendered by the girl child and the woman for the welfare family, in the form of tedious and time-consuming homemaking chores, are seldom considered “tangible goods.” The most productive, usually the adult males, then monopolize the power to decide on behalf of the family and subordinate the interests of the individuals therein to the interests of the group, albeit a delegated authority. A case of discrimination arises when the decision maker entirely ignores the individual interests of some dependents. Worse for the girl child, when this individual is wholly committed to the perpetuation of even the harmful customs and cultural practices.
I recall the stories my father’s generation recite in regards to the advent of modernity in the form of mission schools. A change that dictated that our grandfathers sent some to school, but not the strongest, for they have to protect the clan; not the just, for they would eventually have to administer the community; and not the girl child, for she is highly prized. Such a proper system of choice, what we would term now as discrimination. Miriam Webster defines discrimination as “the act of making or perceiving a difference.” It further defines it as “the act, practice, or an instance of discriminating categorically rather than individually,” categorically meaning on the grounds of race, age, or sex. The first definition is about choice and second is about power relations and interests. The issue is: what are the intent and the result of discrimination? In the case above, barring some from attaining an education, from our grandfather’s point of view, was intended for the good of society, a sound calculus based on their context, and interests. However, the result is that decades later education became the key to success and those discriminated against, for good intention then, became severely disadvantaged by the choices of their fathers.
There is also the issue of the provision of equal opportunities to individuals within any given context. Should the interest of the girl child be subjected to the interests of the family and the community, at her expense? Compulsory free primary education for all is the policy of the Government. However, due to many variables, including the inability of the State to provide sufficient access to free primary education, many children do not attend school. A quick survey of the National Education Statistics For the Republic of South Sudan, 2016, we find out that 42% of all enrolled students in the country were girls, a number close to parity with boys. However, 7.4 % of the girls enrolled in schools dropped out in 2016, with 8.3% dropping out of Primary 6 and 14.5% dropping out of Senior 2. Though there is not much difference between the dropout rate of boys (6%) and that of girls (7.4%), more boys end up dropping out of school, but girls are more likely to drop out.
At the top of the known reasons for girls dropping out of school, are the combined reasons of marriage and pregnancy, at 16%. The other 84% of girl dropouts will most likely end up married or eloped, chiefly because most families would opt for marriage to protect their girls (investment) from being spoiled or eloped. So the issue here is the ramifications of cultural and customary practices adhered to by families and communities and the ceiling it creates for the potential of the girl child. Constitutionally, marriageable age in South Sudan is 18 years old. To protect the girl child, marrying an underage girl must be criminalized, not only in paper but also in practice. Furthermore, the South Sudan Child Act, 2008, affords the girl child the following, among others, protection from early and forced marriage; the right to equal participation with the male child; and the right not to be expelled from school due to pregnancy or motherhood. Enforcement of these laws is critical, but it is easier said than done.
The arm of South Sudan’s law and order apparatus is severely short, and issues of marriage and family and civil law are under the mandate of customary law. What is lacking is the codification of customary law and its harmonization with the Constitution and the statutory law of the land. Furthermore, a change of calculus in the traditional setting is necessary, whereby there will be regulation of dowry prices, appreciation of the value of an educated girl, and provision of access to free and compulsory primary education. Then and only then, will a girl child, in all the stages of her life, gain a bit of sovereignty in formulating her interests, goals, and ambitions. As we speak, some add more cows to the bridewealth of an educated girl. However, others are competing to marry Nyalong Ngong, a purportedly 17-year-old girl, bidding over 500 cows, for her potential in birthing seven footers like herself, for them a sound calculus, and by no means an isolated case. All while others are beating girls to death for eloping or refusing marriage.
What do you expect from a society in which the girl is wealth, not to mention a symbol of filial pride? It suffices to say that in many instances, especially in the pastoralists societies, the girl child is thoroughly objectified and considered a transaction good to be exchanged for the most prized currency, cattle. What is right and who says so? Are the wielders of power the ones to dictate? Are the keepers of tradition and the mechanisms and means of cultural continuity the ones to dictate? Alternatively, is it for change, the only constant, to prescribe? At this juncture of our development as a nation, we are still in-between tradition and modernity. Therefore, the accumulation of wealth for the survival and sustainability of the family, coupled with tested and tried customs and traditions dictate most of our people’s calculus. Hence the commodification of the girl child and the woman continues perpetually.
I do, however, believe that society changes its decisions as circumstances change through a rational process, regardless of ideas of rights and whatnot, since the underlying interest of the group and community is to sustain and perpetually exist. Therefore, change is the only mechanism available to us now. The wielders of power must choose to legislate the necessary catalysts for this change. Not through percentages and lip service to inclusion, but by going as far as legislating morality and desired behaviors, without a severe encroachment on, our favorite subject, sovereignty. By incentivizing change, and disincentivizing rigid adherence to undesirable customary practices, simple calculus would drive our people towards the desired actions.
Assuming that the State provides free and compulsory primary education for all, it should be criminal for the girl child to be left behind, as for an underage girl child to be married. To be enforced whenever possible, especially in towns, to create precedents and deterrents. It’s unconscionable for any constitutional post holder to contravene the Constitution, which he solemnly swore to uphold, by marrying an underage girl with impunity. Understandably, in the rural areas, there would need to be constant negotiations on interests and benefits with the keepers of tradition, including women, but I do know that it is possible to convert many towards valuing the education of the girl child. The change that needs to happen is a change of attitudes and values, through a rational process, a calculus of interests.
Moreover, we shouldn’t underestimate the capability of our rural people and traditional leaders. They are sovereign and concerned with the successful and dignified perpetuation and survival of their families and communities. For which the contribution of the girl child is essential, and therefore according to her an equal opportunity to education and subsequent sovereignty in pursuit of her unique productive interests, is clearly for the greater good of family, community, and nation.
Marx, Karl (1875). “Part I.” Critique of the Gotha Program.
South Sudan: The Transitional Constitution of the Republic of South Sudan, 2011 [South Sudan]. 26 February 2013.
Sudan: Child Act, 2008 (Southern Sudan) [Sudan]. 13 October 2008.
South Sudan: National Education Statistics For The Republic of South Sudan, 2016. Ministry of Education & General Instruction, 2017.
© Apuk Ayuel Mayen 2018. All rights reserved.