Changing families for a ‘new’ South Sudan

(JUBA, Southern Sudan) – For many families, children are a source of great joy and many parents cherish the time they spend with their young ones. As a young mother and career woman I have had to eventually work and live in Southern Sudan while we send our daughter to school in a neighbouring country and even while we seek to fulfil our parental responsibility of ensuring that she has good alternative care in our absence, the separation is very difficult to bear. On a brighter note though, all this will soon come to an end as investments are made in the education sector in post referendum Southern Sudan. The recent opening up of the first international school, Dr. John Garang International, in Juba, signals a very promising start and we certainly look forward to our daughter joining the school and being able to access quality education from within Southern Sudan.

Over the past holidays as I sought to spend quality time with my 4 year old daughter, she asked me an innocent question in her struggle to make out her identity and understand the world like any other 4 year old. Her question took me aback though as I tried to understand where she had gotten her understanding from. The question was whether building was an activity for boys.

While I do believe that men and women are different, I certainly do not believe that biology is destiny for girls or women but when I reflect on my own actions to date I realise that I have often bought my daughter toy dolls whenever I can and have some money to spare and never a toy car and most of the clothes I have picked out for her are in fact pink.

It has been said that we are born male and female but that society makes us into men and women through socialization and defines what roles we play and the space we then occupy.

It is in the family where we are first taught gender roles and how to behave as boys and girls and later men and women. It is in the family too where we not only learn these gender roles but also where important values such as tolerance, honesty, integrity, equality, fairness and justice are instilled in us or altogether fail to be instilled in.

At 18 years of age, these children become adults and acquire the right to vote. Whether these young adults or we ourselves vote in patriarchy or dynamism and the kind of leaders we ourselves become or elect has a lot to do with our experiences from home and the values we picked from there. As such if as a society we want to bring about and realize the ideals that our martyrs gave themselves for and become that society that is democratic, corruption free, tolerant, just, and equitable then that transformation must begin at the level of the family. Bringing about gender equality too starts at the level of the family before patriarchal values are entrenched and those who draw privilege from it object to changes to the status quo.

One of the ways of supporting our families to play the important role of taking our what might be soon to be country forward is by enacting a comprehensive family law and coming up with programs aimed at strengthening families and helping them cope with the stress of everyday life such as counselling programs, family recreational activities and income generation programs.

Many aspects of family life such as marriage, divorce, property, custody of children are governed by customary law. Customary law certainly has its very important place and function in Southern Sudanese societies and as an individual I have come to develop a lot of respect for it and its positive aspects however for women many times customary law serves to clip their agency and autonomy and at times leads to violations of their human rights such as the right to an education and to freely marry a person of their own choice. Maybe the negative effect of customary law on women and girls has a lot to do with an understanding of customary law as tradition, static and unchanging and the fact that women are often neither the authors of customary law and are largely absent in the customary law arena and so to make customary law responsive to women’s need we need to create spaces for women in the customary law discourse.

By enacting a comprehensive statutory family law, we provide women with greater say at the level of the family introducing democracy at that level and provide women and children who are at risk of violence with a range of protective measures they can employ particularly where customary structures have failed to respond. By providing in the law for family property and women’s say in the management and sale of such property and for equitable distribution of property upon divorce that recognises the value of women’s unpaid work we allow for the securing of children’s best interests in times of family conflict. While couples ordinarily do not enter into a marriage contemplating its breakdown, conflict does happen and even while we provide for programs to mitigate conflict, we have to provide legal avenues to protect the parties in all eventualities.

If we are really serious about any changes post referendum, then we must place the family at the centre of our priorities and make real investments in its welfare. Commitments must also be matched with sufficient budgetary allocations. In addition, we must all look within and re-evaluate our values and internalize those virtues that we seek as a nation.

As a young parent I still have a lot to learn and will certainly learn through my mistakes but as for my contribution to the reconstruction of post referendum Southern Sudan, I will re-evaluate the lessons I pass on to my daughter and strive to ensure that I impart correct gender values as a contribution to a one day more equitable Southern Sudan. Likewise I hope others do their share of imparting these values at the family level for the ‘new’ South Sudan we have always wanted.

*Akur Ajuoi holds an undergraduate degree in Law and a Masters’ degree in International Development Law and Human Rights with specialization in Gender and Law. She is also deputydirector of the Southern Sudan Women Lawyers’ Association. She can be reached at n This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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