Displaced girlhood: gendered dimensions of coping and social change among conflict-affected South Sudanese youth.

Author:Ensor, Marisa O.


As wartime inhabitants, female children have often been presented as paradigmatic non-agents, victims of a toxic mixture of violent circumstances and oppressive cultural practices. Child- and gender-sensitive approaches, on the other hand, have embraced a more balanced recognition of displaced girls' active, if often constrained, efforts to cope with adverse circumstances. In South Sudan, a young country mired in unresolved conflict and forced displacement, girls must navigate multiple and complex challenges. Drawing on fieldwork conducted among South Sudanese refugees in Uganda and returnees in South Sudan, I examine ways in which gender shapes local realities of conflict, displacement, return, and reintegration, focusing on the often-overlooked experiences of girls and female youth. Study findings evidence displaced girls' remarkable determination and resourcefulness as they struggle to overcome a persistently turbulent climate of social instability, deprivation, and conflict.


En temps deguerre, lesfilles sont souventpresentees comme non-agents paradigmatiques, victimes d'un melange toxique de circonstances violentes et de pratiques culturelles oppressives. D'autrepart, des approches adaptees au genre et a I'enfant font place a une reconnaissance plus equilibree des efforts energiques, quoique souvent limites, deployes par les filies deplacees pour surmonter des circonstances defavorables. Au Sud-Soudan, un jeune pays aux prises avec des conflits non resolus et des deplacements forces, les filies doivent affronter de multiples et complexes defis. S'appuyant sur des recherches sur le terrain menees aupres de refugies sud-soudanais en Ouganda et de rapatries au Sud-Soudan, I'auteur examine comment le genre faconne les realites locales du conflit, du deplacement, du retour et de la reintegration en se concentrant sur les experiences souvent negligees des filies et des jeunes femmes. Les resultats de Vetude montrent la determination et Voriginalite remarquables desfilles deplacees qui luttent pour surmonter un environnement toujours turbulent d'instabilite sociale, de privation et de conflit.


As wartime inhabitants, female children are often presented as paradigmatic non-agents, victims of a toxic mixture of violent circumstances and oppressive cultural practices. Highlighting their vulnerability over all other characteristics, the perspectives espoused by most aid agencies have also tended to relegate girls to the status of members of groups with "special needs." Proximity to violent situations and breakdown of social structures may indeed increase the exposure of displaced children (primarily girls, but also boys) to sexual abuse and other forms of exploitation. In addition, it is widely recognized that discrimination in the provision of assistance during humanitarian emergencies and situations of protracted displacement often disproportionately affects women and girls. (1)

On the other hand, attention has also been focused on the coexistence of both agency and vulnerability, and the interplay of distress and resiliency in the face of adversity. This approach offers a more balanced perspective than the uncritical exclusive focus on vulnerability and victimhood so characteristic of traditional constructions of displaced and war-affected girls, and other children in similarly challenging circumstances. While it is still far from being the norm, scholars and child-rights advocates have progressively embraced a more positive recognition of the positive roles that young people in general, and girls in particular, can play as social actors, not just passive recipients of others' provisions. (2) The oft-cited Machel report, Impact of Armed Conflict on Children, for instance, proclaims that "adolescents have special needs and special strengths," (3) and urges us to consider that "young people should be seen in that light; as survivors and active participants in creating solutions, not just as victims or problems." (4)

Research findings demonstrate that, in South Sudan, members of the youngest generations are being differently affected, vis-a-vis their adult counterparts by the processes shaping the socio-political landscape of their newly independent society. The position occupied by most South Sudanese girls, in particular, is not an easy one, given not only the renewed conflict and adverse humanitarian conditions, but also the pronounced gender inequalities that characterize their ethnically diverse but consistently patriarchal society. (5) Confronting deeply engrained cultural and social norms dictating a subordinate and mostly silent role for young females, however, may place girls in a difficult and even dangerous position. As other studies of conflict-affected female youth have also noted, "Resilience in the context of war often carries a high price." (6)

In South Sudan, changing attitudes towards gender roles are particularly salient among the thousands of returning refugee girls for whom reintegration into a society they do not necessarily identify as "home" is fraught with difficulties. Many returnee girls display self-assurance and express progressive views on social issues--i.e., marriage, women's participation in public life--that may be categorized as transgressive and even perceived as a deliberate affront to South Sudanese tradition. Domestic discord as well as serious incidents of physical violence and police arrests were mentioned in field interviews. It can be concluded that, for these girls, displacement entails more than a conflict-induced geographical relocation, but also encompasses a socio-cultural dislocation--displaced girlhood--that persists in the post-independence period. Efforts to address the renewed instability and human insecurity currently shaping South Sudan must thus incorporate attention to the needs and aspirations of displaced girls, guided by a deeper understanding of the implications of displaced girlhood for South Sudanese society as a whole.

Drawing on fieldwork conducted primarily among South Sudanese refugees in Uganda and returnees in South Sudan, this article presents findings of a larger study of young people's role in post-conflict reconstruction and peace- and nation-building in Africa. More specifically, I examine the multiple ways in which gender shapes local realities of conflict, survival, displacement, return, and reintegration, focusing on the experiences of girls and female youth. I begin my discussion by outlining the conceptual and methodological frameworks that guided the research on which this article is based. Next I present a brief overview of the wartime and current humanitarian conditions in South Sudan, which provide a necessary background in which to situate the experiences of South Sudanese girls. I then discuss the main findings of my study, structured around the three key dimensions of displaced girlhood in their young country: (1) domestic relations and marriage practices, (2) education, and (3) livelihood and economic opportunities. I conclude my analysis by summarizing the main findings of my research on South Sudanese girls' efforts to overcome a legacy of war and displacement, and re-emphasizing the significance of adopting an age- and gender-sensitive approach to humanitarian programing.

Conceptual and Methodological Frameworks

Although male-centred approaches remain the norm, attention to the gender-differentiated experiences of refugee women has increased over the last fifteen years. (7) Displaced children have similarly become the focus of a growing body of scholarly work from a variety of perspectives and disciplines. (8) Most of this focus on uprooted youngsters has been directed to the global south, which hosts roughly 85 per cent of the world's youth population. (9) Significantly, "the limited corpus of reliable research on Africa's youngest citizens has tended to adopt a negative outlook." (10)

While gender stereotyping is rather common, with female youth identified as "troubled" and males characterized as "troublesome," (11) fewer studies have addressed the gendered nature of childhood. (12) The (de)gendered assumptions underlying prevalent constructions of childhood and youth as they intersect with notions of protection, deservedness, acceptable survival choices, and changing social roles during humanitarian crises and displacement also remain largely unexamined. This general inattention to gender issues among war-affected and displaced children has been attributed to the prejudicial attitudes prevalent in international development and humanitarian arenas, which privilege the perspectives and agendas of boys. As Nordstrom argues, "The lack of political, economic and educational development for girls is a symptom of many societies' failure ... to see women as political, economic or educated actors." (13) Similarly, "Girls continue to be marginalized in programs for child soldiers at both national and community levels," (14) despite the pervasive use of female children and youth in fighting forces across the world.

Recognizing wartime displacement as deeply gendered and generational, this article examines the experiences of South Sudanese girls in the unresolved conflict and humanitarian crises that continue to affect their country in the post-independence period. My study is inspired by the new paradigm of childhood studies articulated most explicitly by Allison James, Chris Jenks, and Alan Prout, (15) and the gender-sensitive and feminist analyses of wartime displacement and post-conflict reconstruction that have become more prevalent in the last few decades. (16) The new paradigm of childhood studies emerged from an effort to refocus "current understandings of the experiences of children by demonstrating that childhood is socially, politically, economically, and culturally constructed." (17) My choice to privilege a gendered/feminist anthropological perspective stems from my recognition...

To continue reading