Today, International Women’s Day is celebrated globally. To mark the occasion, we’re showcasing the blog articles on women’s struggles for gender equality that we’ve published on Bliss over the past ...
In late December 2022, the Taliban announced that aid organizations would no longer be allowed to employ women. It was the next step in a series of measures that make it increasingly impossible for Afghan women to study, live or think independently. In response, many aid organizations have stopped their work, others are continuing. What will be the effect of all this and where are the boundaries for continuing assistance?
The consequences of the ban are disastrous. After the takeover of power by the Taliban in 2021, the economy of Afghanistan collapsed, the government currently hardly functions and health services have disappeared except for aid-managed programmes. Drought, floods and last summer’s big earthquake all made matters worse. Current estimates are that 20 million people depend on humanitarian assistance and the ban on women’s employment will certainly cost lives. In addition, jobs are very rare in today’s Afghanistan. Many women who work for aid organizations are the sole breadwinner in their family. These families will face poverty if these women resign from their jobs.
UN diplomats and aid organizations are on high alert and they are feverishly meeting to seek strategies that enable them to stand up for human rights and yet maintain aid as much as possible. The UN Security Council, as well as many countries, has also condemned the ban. Global humanitarian aid coordinator, Martin Griffiths, will be travelling to Afghanistan in the coming weeks in an attempt to persuade the government to change its mind. For the time being, however, the Taliban do not seem sensitive to outside pressure.
There are currently about a hundred aid organizations that have stopped their work. Some agencies take a principled approach: they condemn excluding female employees as a gross violation of human rights and are reluctant to strike deals with the Taliban about the provision of aid. Other organizations emphasize the logistical implications of the ban: aid is not possible in Afghanistan without women, because only women can reach the vulnerable women and children who need it most.
There are some organizations that can continue their work without disruption, including Médecins sans Frontières (MSF). Their employees are not yet affected by the new measure. The Taliban appear to be divided over the matter. The ban was issued by the Afghan Ministry of Economic Affairs, which is under the influence of the hardliner Taliban. Most national aid organizations are registered under this ministry. This implies that the ban also affects the programmes of foreign aid organizations that work through local partners. On the other hand, foreign organizations that implement their own programmes, such as MSF, fall under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which has not adopted the measure. The Ministry of Health is also holding off the ban for the time being.
There are voices advocating that the aid organizations should draw a line and stop talking to the Taliban. However, many organizations will continue to look for a humanitarian space to uphold assistance in order not to let the population down. They are prepared to negotiate at a local level, where it is expected that some rulers may apply the ban more leniently. This is a common humanitarian strategy: negotiate where necessary and continue to look for ways to continue to provide aid. A disadvantage of this strategy may be that the Taliban can play off aid organizations against each other.
The ban is still fresh and evolving – new announcements are expected soon. As far as I am concerned, there is one red line: organizations cannot agree to provide assistance when women are excluded from their services. Aid agencies, the UN and international governments should convey a common message: Aid that is reserved for men only is a no-go as this would contribute to the system of gender apartheid that prevails under the Taliban.
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About the author:
Dorothea Hilhorst is professor of Humanitarian Studies at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University.
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According to the United Nations Population Fund, there is a variation in the ratio of male to female birth—since the 1990s, 25% more male births than female have been recorded in different areas. Prenatal sex selection reflects a subtle act of violence rooted in social, political, economic, and cultural factors that re-enforces the persistent low economic status of women and value of girls in some communities. This could lead to an overall impact on the mental and physical health of women as well as the creation of a gender imbalance within the population.
Prenatal sex selection is a practice that involves the use of medical techniques to choose the sex of an offspring. Although it has been linked to medical practices that help balance the family, it also leads to sex-selective abortion, where predominantly the lives of girls are halted before birth. It is a form of violence against women that systematically discriminates against girls before birth and at conception, limiting women’s agency in matters relating to their reproductive health rightsplace women at an unequal hierarchical position within the family as decision makers on the sex of a child as well as family size.
This form of gender-based violence (GBV) as with many other forms of GBV is complex. It is rooted in cultural preferences for sons, societal ideas of the roles and responsibilities of women and men, and unmerited privileges for or the rights of men over those of women. In some places, continuity of family lineage and care for ageing parents, as well as wage-earning capacity are all factors that contribute to this form of discrimination. Generally, sex selection results from social, economic and cultural biases that favour men over women.
These cultural, economic and social biases raise the yet unanswered question: ‘are we collectively doing enough and investing in a society free of all forms of violence and befitting women?’
It has been nearly 40 years since The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Violence against Women (CEDAW) was adopted by the United Nations—a convention that has been ratified by 187 countries. However, sex selection, deeply rooted in economic and social biases, still exists in majority of these 187 countries, including Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, and India.
The practice of sex selection also affects girls after birth. Studies have shown that unwanted girls may endure neglect or be deprived of opportunities, creating a further disincentive for mothers to have daughters, since they don’t want to see their children suffer. UNPF (2018, no Page) provides the rationale.
In some agrarian economies, girls are at risk of being in poor health, lack of care or malnourished, to keep their brothers strong and healthy as a source of protection or an assurance for a bigger farmland or harvest and or to continue the family linage.
Sex preference also affects women’s mental health within the family. Studies have shown that in some instances, women who give birth to only girls may be under huge societal pressure to produce a male child.
To combat this form of violence against women and girls, we have to begin a discussion on identifying and eliminating harmful gender stereotypes and roles that have given rise to the overt act of selective birth. We need to look more closely at the economic market systems that support higher-earning value of a particular sex and the social structures that link specific traits or attributes to power and success, as these are the subtle but yet violent act that hinders the birth of many girls.
United Nations Population Fund (2018) ‘Gender biased sex selection’ Accessed March 23, 2019 https://www.unfpa.org
In a recent lecture at the ISS, Professor Cathi Albertyn of the University of the Witwatersrand discussed how South African women navigate civil and customary laws to claim women’s rights within culture. Here she shows that women in South Africa do not seek to oppose culture and custom, but desire equality within their own communities.
Women in South Africa have long opposed discrimination in the family, in both civil and customary law. When the South African Constitution was negotiated in the early 1990s as the apartheid dispensation made way for a democratic political system, few expected the conflict that occurred between women pursuing equality and traditional leaders seeking to affirm culture and custom. Women fiercely opposed the traditional leaders’ 1993 call for customary law to be excluded from the equality guarantee in the Bill of Rights, arguing that all South Africans should be recognised as rights-bearing citizens in the new democracy. In the end, the 1996 Constitution created a plural legal system that recognised customary law, as the written and unwritten indigenous law regulating the lives of many black South Africans (especially in rural areas), and subjected it—together with all law—to the values and rights of the Constitution.
As with earlier forms of civil law, women suffered multiple inequalities under customary law, including unequal status and rights in the family, to inheritance and land, as well as participation in customary courts and positions of leadership. But in calling for equal rights, they did not seek to oppose culture and custom. On the contrary, organisations such as the Rural Women’s Movement were very clear that women wanted equality within their communities. In constitutional terms, they asserted both the right to equality (section 9 of the Constitution) and the right to participate in their culture (sections 30 and 31).
The relationship between equality and culture
How, then, should we think about the relationship between equality and culture? In the early 1990s, international law did not seem to be particularly helpful. Whilst the Convention on the Eliminations of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) set out important rights, it did not engage the cultural domain beyond calling for change. Rather, it seemed to imagine completely separate and hierarchical spheres of women’s rights and discriminatory culture. This tended towards a trumping relationship between women’s rights and a “cultural other”.
South African lawyers and policy-makers imagined a different relationship, drawing on the idea of “harmonising” customary law with the Constitution. Here they were influenced by the work of Women and Law in Southern Africa (WLSA), who recognised that women’s rights needed to be strengthened within their customary context. Their research pointed to ideas of custom and culture that were not bounded, rigid and unchanging, but more flexible and responsive to a changing world, and to women’s needs. In contrast to the official customary law, codified under colonial rule, the “living law” revealed practices in which women secured rights to inheritance, land, and so on.
This idea of “living law” in which women were agents within an evolving system, able to draw on multiple ideas to negotiate change from within, became a key idea in both legislative and judicial reform of customary law in South Africa.
For example, research in South (and southern) Africa which showed that women actively seek out rights in marriage, reaching to civil marriage when they could not secure rights in customary marriage, influenced the enactment of the Recognition of Customary Marriages Act in 1998. The RCMA granted women equal status and rights in marriage, while preserving customary forms of celebration and—controversially and directly against CEDAW—recognised polygamy.
In addition, Classens and Mnisi’s research into land rights—with land usually held by men—has uncovered practices in which women (particularly single women with children) are able to negotiate access to land in their communities by drawing on customary and constitutional values of equality, democracy, need and dependency.
Criticism of “harmonising” two law forms
These examples point to the possibilities of claiming women’s rights within culture, and that cultural rules and practices can accommodate and affirm women’s rights and gender equality. But this approach is not without problems, nor is it uncontested.
A major criticism by writers, such as Himonga (2005) and Nhlapo (2017), is that legislative and judicial attempts to “harmonise” customary law with the Constitution are too reliant on civil forms and lack the imagination to embed customary values in new legal forms. As a result, they have not always been followed within rural, customary communities.
Others, such as Nyamu-Musembi (2002), point to the problems of power and vested (male) interests within communities, suggesting that the potential for change is limited as long as women lack authority and voice. Even where women succeed, it is by conforming to gendered “stereotypes”, such as the “dutiful daughter”. Further, meaningful cultural change is often only possible with support from “outsiders”, such as local NGOS (Nyamu-Musembi, Hellum and Katsande 2017,).
Working from within is a contradictory and uneven strategy. However, it cannot, and should not be dismissed. Women need rights within their communities and “top-down”, trumping strategies, while important, can have significant limits. In the end, there is no magic bullet for women’s rights.
List of useful references
Catherine Albertyn ‘Cultural Diversity, “Living Law” And Women’s Rights in South Africa’ in Daniel Bonilla Maldonado (ed) Constitutionalism in the Global South (2013) Cambridge University Press 163-.
Aninka Claassens & Sindiso Mnisi-Weekes ‘Rural Women Redefining Land Rights in the Context of Living Customary Law’ (2009) 25 South African Journal on Human Rights 491.
Anne Hellum & Rosalie Katsande ‘Gender, Human Rights and Legal Pluralities in Southern Africa: A Matter of Context and Power’ in Giselle Corradi, Eva Brems & Mark Goodale (eds) (2017) Human Rights Encounter Legal Pluralism: Normative and Empirical Approaches 119–136.
Chuma Himonga ‘The Advancement of Women’s Rights in the First Decade of Democracy in South Africa: The Reform of the Customary law of Marriage and Succession’ 2005 Acta Juridica 82.
Thandabantu Nhlapo ‘Customary Law in Post-Apartheid South Africa: Constitutional Confrontations in Culture, Gender and “Living Law”’ (2017) 33 South African Journal on Human Rights 1.
Celestine Nyamu-Musembi ‘Are Local Norms and Practice Fences or Pathways? The Example of Women’s Property Rights’ in Abdullahi A An-Na’im (ed) (2002) Cultural Transformation And Human Rights In Africa 126.
Cathi Albertyn is Professor of Law at the School of Law, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa, where she teaches graduate and post-graduate courses in Constitutional Law and Human Rights. Prior to joining the School, she was the Director of the Centre for Applied Legal Studies (2001-2007) and headed its Gender Research Programme for ten years (1992-2001). She was appointed to the first Commission on Gender Equality and later served on the South African Law Reform Commission. research interests include Equality, Gender Studies, Human Rights, the Judiciary and Constitutional Law.
Once you’ve settled on a shade, New York City colorist Aura Friedman, whose clients include everyone from Carolyn Murphy to Caroline Polachek and Sky Ferreira, says the only rule for dyeing your eyebrows is to match warm tones with warm tones, cool with cool. That, and be prepared to return to the salon at least once every four weeks.
Beauty has so many forms, and I think the most beautiful thing is confidence and loving yourself.
As you may be aware from the proliferation of headlines that end in “…and the internet is very upset about it!” the Internet is constantly very upset about various things. Some of those things provoke quite understandable if not righteous upper. Other times though, the internet just seems bored and looking for something to kick around the ol’ Twitter echo chamber.
The world of fashion meanwhile has a long history of provoking, teasing, scandalizing, and, dare we say it, trolling. Actual scandal-worthy fashion moments aside, it is of little surprise then that occasionally otherwise inoffensive fashion items and objects get caught in the Twitter outrage cycle simply for existing. Would fashion really be doing it’s job in 2017 if it didn’t occasionally provoke such strong reactions online? We have little doubt that that was the point at least some of these designers (we’re looking at you Demna) were trying to make. Others maybe were perhaps just playing catch up on what they perceived as a trend.
Fall decorating presents the opportunity to revel in luxury. Fabrics become more substantial, color palettes transition to rich hues, and just about every design decision for the season revolves around cultivating a cozy living environment. In an effort to help you make your space ideal for fall, a group of design tastemakers reveal the decor trends to expect in homes across the country this season, along with a few lessons you’ll want to consider. Fall decorating presents the opportunity to revel in luxury. Fabrics become more substantial, color palettes transition to rich hues, and just about every design decision for the season revolves around cultivating a cozy living environment. In an effort to help you make your space ideal for fall, a group of design tastemakers reveal the decor trends to expect in homes across the country this season, along with a few lessons you’ll want to consider.
Beauty has so many forms, and I think the most beautiful thing is confidence and loving yourself.
Mike Rowe, host of Discovery Channel’s Dirty Jobs, entered into the world online fashion critic earlier this year when he discovered a pair of $425 jeans on sale at Nordstrom’s from the brand PRPS. He positioned them as another volley in “our country’s War on Work.” He continued, “They’re not even fashion. They’re a costume for wealthy people who see work as ironic – not iconic.” Fair point. Really though we were also a bit offended that DSquared2 already did the whole purposefully muddied jeans a few years ago. In fact, Gwen Stefani was spotted wearing the originals when she first started dating Blake Shelton. See, there are occasional situation.
Mixing urban attitude, boho elegance and rock ‘n’ roll spirit, she delivers a genuine French allure.
We get why people would be outraged from a certain view, but we also think at least some of these designers are in on the joke. Maybe the only question is what exactly the punchline is. Then again, when you think about it the entire world of high fashion is taking something mundane (clothing; we all have to wear it), and turning it into coveted and cutting-edge luxury items.
Life experience brings out different emotions and different perspectives on things. I just want to be constantly evolving.
Mike Rowe, host of Discovery Channel’s Dirty Jobs, entered into the world online fashion critic earlier this year when he discovered a pair of $425 jeans on sale at Nordstrom’s from the brand PRPS. He positioned them as another volley in “our country’s War on Work.” He continued, “They’re not even fashion. They’re a costume for wealthy people who see work as ironic – not iconic.” Fair point. Really though we were also a bit offended that DSquared2 already did the whole purposefully muddied jeans a few years ago. In fact, Gwen Stefani was spotted wearing the originals when she first started dating Blake Shelton. See, there are occasional situation in which a high fashion-meets-down home country boy aesthetic really.
People were absolutely astounded, at least in between that time that they read the Tweet or headline and when they actually go to the details, that Prada was selling a $150 “paper clip.” In reality, of course, it was a sterling silver money clip shaped like a paper clip (and when you really think about it, all clips really do the same thing). $150 is a lot for a paper clip, but it’s actually not that eye boggling when you look at other high-end money clips.
Problematic assumptions related to women’s position and role in humanitarian crises are unpacked in a special issue of the journal Disasters on gender, sexuality and violence. The main lesson drawn from the special issue is that aid actors should tread carefully and seriously invest in their capacity to carefully monitor the intended and unintended effects of programming on gender relations.
At the United Nations (UN) World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) in May 2016, ‘achieving greater gender equality and greater inclusivity’ was identified as one of the five key areas of humanitarian action. The WHS wanted this to be a watershed moment that would spark a shift toward systematically meeting the needs of women and girls and promoting their role as active decision-makers and leaders.
After more than four decades of discourses on ‘gender in development’ and a substantive history of evolving international law and practice on women, peace, and security, the WHS marked an important declaration that the humanitarian aid field takes gender seriously. ‘Gender’ too often has been understood as synonymous with ‘women and girls,’ neglecting questions of agency, vulnerability, and the dynamic and changing realities of gendered power relations.
The focus on sexual violence has brought significant attention to some of the challenges that many women face, but has also reproduced a generalised image of women as victims. That idea was already well-embedded in classic views of conflict that see men as aggressors and combatants and women as non-combatant victims. While this depiction is grounded in sad empirical realities, it leads to a kind of tunnel vision that only centres on the suffering of women, viewing them as the primary victims and primarily as victims. The victim discourse furnishes a rationale for providing women with direly needed assistance, and in fact, women themselves are often keen to play the role of victim to become eligible for aid, backgrounding other aspects of their identity, including their (political) agency. Nonetheless, this focus is problematic in obscuring other realities in which men and women assume different and more complex roles.
Humanitarian programmes often seek the participation of women because they (we) are considered the more caring gender. Women are often targeted for aid as a proven means to improve the wellbeing of children, foster more peaceful conditions, and prevent the misdirection of resources. In the process, international aid often aims to also structurally improve the position of women. This is why UNICEF considers engaging women in service delivery as a positive step towards promoting women’s rights, and describes it as the ‘double dividend of gender equality’.
While well-intentioned, all of these assumptions pertaining to women’s position and role in humanitarian responses have problematic aspects. These dimensions are what we aimed to unearth and explore in our new special issue of the journal Disasters on gender, sexuality and violence in humanitarian crises.
What about men?
The attention on women as aid recipients drowns out the voices that are asking: ‘What about men?’ (not to mention other marginalised gender categories like LGBT communities). Men also cope with specific vulnerabilities, often related to their gender. They are much more often at the receiving end of lethal violence than women, and are frequently victims of sexual violence. When aid is channelled through women, it can lead to a situation where men’s vulnerability is forgotten, or where men feel emasculated or disenfranchised from their traditional social roles (see, for example, the contribution by Holly Ritchie to the special issue). Such situations can have a variety of consequences, ranging from mental health problems among men to the (violent) re-assertion of men and masculinities.
Gender as relations of power
The articles in the special issue bring another layer to this discussion that all too often boxes men and women into stagnant categories. By prioritising these categorical issues that ascribe and assume particular traits as specific to men and women, debates may miss the mark regarding gender as relations of power that, like everything else, are cast into disarray during humanitarian crises. It is well-established that gender roles are interwoven with other social identity markers, and that these intersectional gender relations are, moreover, deeply ingrained in and reproduced by the working of all institutions in society, ranging from the personal between men and women to the working of cultural values, geopolitics, governance practices, and religion. In creating the special issue, we asked: how do humanitarian responses interact with these myriad aspects of gender and other interrelated social identities? And how do humanitarian responses thus affect gender relations?
Persistence and change
The special issue testifies both to the persistence of gender relations as well as their propensity to change. Julian Hopwood, Holly Porter, and Nangiro Saum found a drastic reported change in everyday gender relations in Karamoja, Northern Uganda, especially where women’s material resource bases were enhanced, but they raise questions about whether such change is enduring. The economic empowerment of women may spill over positively into other domains of life, or contrarily may undermine goodwill towards women’s positions and bring about a violent backlash against them (and against humanitarians)—or both. Likewise, well-meaning interventions can have adverse effects, as Luedke and Logan found in South Sudan, where a narrow focus on conflict-related sexual violence and recycled (although well-intentioned) responses thereto by international organisations were not only unhelpful, but also ran counter to and undermined local norms that might have protected women.
The instrumentalisation of gender
A final layer that complicates the analysis of and interventions in gender relations is that gender as an issue is often instrumentalised for different purposes. Gender has firmly become part of the high politics of international relations. More locally, an interest in the position of women can, for example, obscure attempts of a government to firm up its grip over local authorities, as Rebecca Tapscott found in another contribution to the special issue on Northern Uganda. Likewise, Hilhorst and Douma found that the responses to sexual violence in the DRC were instrumentalised for various purposes by a large range of actors.
What do these different layers mean for humanitarian action, apart from standing as a reminder that paying attention to women should not result in turning a blind eye to vulnerability and agency of other gender categories? The special issue highlights the dynamic and entangled nature of gender relations, and how humanitarian and political attention to gender adds additional layers to the complexities of gender relations in crisis environments. Aid can often do lots of harm. This does not mean that gender objectives should be abandoned, but that aid actors need to tread carefully and seriously invest in their capacity to carefully monitor the intended and unintended effects of programming on gender relations.
 The issue is open access for the duration of 2018.
Holly Porter is Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellow at the Institute of Development Policy and Management (University of Antwerp) and Conflict Research Group (Ghent University). She is also Research Fellow at the Firoz Lalji Centre for Africa of the London School of Economics and Political Science.
Rachel Gordon is an independent research consultant on gender and humanitarian aid, and was formerly an SLRC Researcher and the SLRC Gender Team Leader, Feinstein International Center (Tufts University)/Overseas Development Institute.
Women’s groups and networks have been cited as key instruments for fostering women’s pathways of social and economic empowerment. Yet, with limits to collective agency, Holly Ritchie argues that the ...
About the author:
Holly A Ritchie is a (post doc) research fellow at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS), Erasmus University with a strong interest in gender, norms and social change in economic development in fragile environments. Her work has spanned Afghanistan, East Africa and the Middle East.
‘Hyper-masculinity’ describes the exaggeration of stereotypical male behaviour, which can result in increased incidences of gender-based violence for men as well as women. In war-torn developing countries, Holly Ritchie argues that such behaviour also acts as a fundamental barrier to change, and inclusive community development.
Galvanising action against Gender-Based Violence (GBV), this year’s 16 days of Activism campaign draws special attention to the underserved and marginalised, ‘Leave No One Behind: End Violence against Women and Girls’. This comes on the heels of the recent #MeToo movement, with social media highlighting the prevalence of so-called ‘toxic masculinity’, and a call for victims to speak out and to raise awareness of men’s abuse and harassment of women around the world. In less developed and conflict prone environments, we may see a more serious and extreme version of this behaviour, often described as ‘hyper-masculinity’.
Stemming from psychology, the concept of ‘hyper-masculinity’ describes the exaggeration of stereotypical male behaviour, particularly related to men’s physical strength, aggression, and sexuality. Such behaviour fuels the dominance of men over women, and competitive behaviour between men. This often results in increased incidences of gender-based violence against women, and even violence against men. In war-torn developing countries, I believe that such behaviour also acts as a fundamental barrier to change, and inclusive community development.
In pastoralist groups in sub-Saharan Africa, society is strongly patriarchal with gender-related roles and responsibilities. Men are expected to be the decision-makers and protectors, with women in secondary roles, as ‘homemakers’. Pastoral women have been described to be ‘doubly marginalized’, since they experience both regional marginalization in rural communities, whilst also negotiating a lifestyle that is often culturally gender-biased. In my extensive research across the region over 2015-17[i], pastoralist communities are now increasingly fragile, with growing populations and scarce resources. Women and girls remain particularly vulnerable. But simultaneously, women and girls also stand at the potential forefront of social change, with new access to basic services such education and health, and livelihood opportunities.
Yet my research emphasised the complexity of the humanitarian situation in South Sudan, with the persisting phenomenon of hyper-masculinity in a context of underdevelopment and risk. In Dinka groups in the central region of Jonglei, traditional attitudes are reinforced through the entrenched practice of marriage dowries (with livestock pledged to the bride’s family). This feeds into the perception that women and girls belong and answer to men. As a warrior culture, there is also still value attached to men’s ability to demonstrate ‘manliness’, including through ‘strong man’ competitions such as wrestling. Reinforcing this, women will equally reject men as potential husbands that have not proven their manhood through such displays. And despite deteriorating environmental conditions and drought, men are equally shunned for helping out with ‘female’ activities (e.g. collecting water or firewater). My research showed that access to firewood in particular has dramatically worsened across the region, with deforestation and population explosion. Insecurity in South Sudan further restricts movement and access. Adolescent girls in Eastern Equatoria bemoaned the influence of local peer pressure on possible shifts in behaviour: “Men and boys cannot help out with ‘women’s’ chores since they will face abuse by their peer groups, be considered ‘voiceless’ and ‘not manly”.
Beyond daily workloads, these traditional attitudes and practices have fostered harmful power imbalances between men and women (and children) in South Sudan. This often leads to gender-based violence, and other forms of violence in the home, community and beyond. Yet such behaviour is often condoned in rural life in South Sudan, with over 80% of men and women agreeing that women should tolerate domestic violence to ‘keep the family together’[ii]. The phenomenon of wife battery, a traditional household practice used to discipline and control women, thus remains normal. In my research, men’s focus groups indicate that domestic violence was still both highly prevalent, and for many, an acceptable way of managing their women (and even often described as ‘wife correction’). Pastoralist women even defined their husband’s ‘care’ through such abusive practices. And within marriage, sex is considered a ‘non-negotiable’: “Your husband can demand sex and you must give it or be beaten.” However, others described new perspectives being slowly brought in with education and community development.
Much has been written about the popular topic of women’s empowerment. Empowerment relates to the changing nature of women’s individual and collective ability to act (agency), which may bring about changes in every day life practices. In my research across the Horn of Africa, the strongest positive influence on women’s empowerment and change was shown to be girls’ education, and women’s participation in village savings and lending associations (VSLAs), shifting public perspectives on women and girls’ capacities and value at home, and even in business. In South Sudan, women’s groups also highlighted the growing influence of the church in reducing incidences of domestic violence, “bringing changes to these [male] habits”.
Yet during times of heightened instability – including localized village conflict, and now renewed civil war in South Sudan – a reversion to stereotypical men’s behaviour is observed. This may be described as a sort of coping mechanism as men grapple with additional stress, frustration and disorder. Men’s community groups explained that whilst there may have been positive shifts in their behaviour in recent times, domestic violence rose once more during crises: “because of the hardship of life”. Sexual violence may be perpetrated against women and children, as well as men by local gangs and militia. Women may also be traded for food or used as sexual slaves (and forced into prostitution). Between the onset of civil war in 2013 and 2016, an increase in sexual violence by ‘multiple armed actors’ was reported across the country.
Reflecting upon such spikes in violence, whilst education, and NGO-facilitated social dialogue is opening up new ideas on gender rights and roles, women’s empowerment may face a glass ceiling in a context of fragility or war, particularly with strong male behavioural tendencies. From a development perspective, I believe that this requires a new and bolder approach with more strategic interventions that involves community male leaders and youth, as well as women to address cultural attitudes, and to steer a new narrative around gender roles and behaviour. In forging new sets of values and beliefs about women and girls, ‘deeper’ empowerment approaches may include the deliberate and careful use of songs, theatre, dance and even (progressive) religion. For many communities in South Sudan, this can build on recent experience and exposure as Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Kenya and Uganda, with new perspectives emerging related to family and community life, particularly amongst women and youth. Notably in my research, elders and men were reported to be a community group that had the least positive influence on women and girls’ empowerment, or were simply described as ‘neutral’ on such topics, busy instead with ‘community security and protection’. Here, it may be critical to learn from neighbouring countries and projects. An instrumental social movement initiated in Burundi known as abatangamuco (‘he who brings light’) has brought men and boys on board with domestic violence and women’s development through cross-community discussions and story telling.
Yet in protracted humanitarian situations such as South Sudan, besides new programmatic approaches involving men, it is worth noting that women’s own smaller collective initiatives, particularly related to peace-building[iii] may both aid in curbing violence but also allow critical ‘social space’[iv] for women to reimagine their lives and to explore cultural processes of transformation and development.
[i] Ritchie, H. A. (forthcoming/2018) Synthesis paper (Trends in Gender and Pastoralism in the Horn of Africa), CARE International.
[ii] Scott, Jennifer, Averbach, Sarah, Merport Modest, Anna, Hacker, Michelle R., Cornish, Sarah, Spencer, Danielle, Murphy, Maureen, and Parmar, Parveen (2013) ‘An assessment of gender inequitable norms and gender-based violence in South Sudan: a community-based participatory research approach’, Conflict and Health 7:4.
[iii] Dini, S. (2009) ‘Women building peace: Somali women in Puntland and Somaliland’, Conflict Trends 2 (31-37).
[iv] Cockburn, C. (2000) Gender and Democracy in the Aftermath of War: Women’s Organization in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Inaugural lecture. Utrecht: University for Humanist Studies.