'Education is my mother and father': the 'invisible' women of Sudan.

Author:Jack, Amani El


Education plays a significant role in informing the way people develop gender values, identities, relationships, and stereotypes. The education of refugees, however, takes place in multiple and diverse settings. Drawing on a decade of field research in Kenya, Sudan, Uganda, and North America, I examine the promises and challenges of education for refugees and argue that southern Sudanese refugee women and girls experience gendered and unequal access to education in protracted refugee sites such as the Kakuma refugee camp, as well as in resettled destinations such as Massachusetts. Many of these refugees, who are commonly referred to as the "lost boys and girls," did not experience schooling in the context of a stable family life; that is why they often reiterate the Sudanese proverb,


L'education joue un role important dans l'obtention d'information sur in facon dont sont acquises les valeurs, les identites, les relations et comment se developpent les stereotypes relatifs aux genres. L'education des refugies, par contre, s'effectue dans des milieux multiples et varies. En m'appuyant sur des etudes de terrain effectuees pendant une decennie au Kenya, au Soudan, en Ouganda et en Amerique du Nord, j'examine les promesses faites aux refugies en matiere d'education de meme que leurs difficultes et j'argumente que les femmes et les filies refugiees provenant du Sud du Soudan connaissent un acces inegal a l'eclucation base sur leur gente dans des camps de deplacement prolonge, comine celui de Kakuma, ainsi qu'a des destinations de reinstallation, telles que le Massachusetts. Nombre de ces refugies, communement surnommes >, nbnt pas eu droit a des etudes scolaires dans une situation familiale stable. C'est d'ailleurs pourquoi ils reiterent souvent le proverbe soudan > Je soutiens que l'education superieure est primordiale, car elle favorise l'autonomie. Elle permet aux refugies, en particulier aux femmes, dhcquerir des connaissances, une voix et des competences qui leur donneront de meilleures possibilites d'emploi et de meilleurs revenus, ce qui contribue a leur egalite de fait et a leur independance. En effet, l'education fournit un contexte au moyen duquel on peut comprendre et mettre en lumiere in nature changeante des rapports de pouvoir entre les genres.


My parents were killed when I was five years old. The Arab government bombed our village in south Sudan, so I walked with a group of boys and girls in the Sahara. We lived in refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya for 10 years before we resettled in Boston ... Education is my mother and father. (1) It tells me what is right and wrong and shows me the way. I am so sad that I lost my parents' love and care but I am happy to gain an education. We survived the most horrible past, but now with education we will strive for a better future. (2) Over the last decade, a growing number of scholars have focused on refugee education, (3) but little attention has been devoted to the gender dimensions of refugee education, particularly at the tertiary level. This paper addresses the promises and challenges of all levels of education for southern Sudanese refugee women and children. I argue that refugee women and girls experience unequal access to education prior to their displacement from south Sudan, in protracted refugee camps such as Kakuma, (4) and in the United States. However, education has become both a means to survival and a driving force motivating them to succeed.

This study is based on qualitative ethnographic data that I gathered from two rounds of fieldwork. The first round was conducted between 2001 and 2003 with forty-five southern Sudanese refugee women, men, and children in Kenya and Uganda. The research participants were predominantly Dinka and Nuer refugees who were forced to flee southern Sudan and reside in refugee camps for periods of time ranging from two to ten years. (5) The second round of fieldwork was conducted in March 2011 in Boston, Massachusetts, with ten southern Sudanese students (five females and five males) who were resettled from the Kakuma refugee camp to Massachusetts. (6) At the time of the interviews, the participants in this second group were all enrolled at various universities and community colleges in Massachusetts, at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. This group of young resettled refugees is commonly referred to as the "lost boys" of Sudan, and has have received great attention in the international media. (7) However, little attention has been paid to the plight of the thousands of "invisible girls" who fled Sudan along with the boys and shared distinct and gendered experiences of both displacement and education. (8)

To better understand the invisibility that the southern Sudanese women and girls experienced and their unequal access to education in both Kakuma and Massachusetts, I draw on feminist perspectives on male dominance and women's invisibility. One use of invisibility derives from the work of feminist scholars such as Josephine Beoku-Betts. (9) Beoku-Betts's analysis of male dominance emphasizes that African women are marginalized because of patriarchal values and institutions that discriminate against women and render them invisible. In the context of this study, I use the term "invisibility" to point to the failure to recognize the experiences of southern Sudanese women and girls during processes of conflict and militarized displacement, especially during their protracted refugee experiences in the Kakuma refugee camp, and their resettlement experiences in the United States. Invisibility and male dominance are indeed mutually reinforcing.

Historically, southern Sudanese men and boys have often been privileged over women and girls through differential rights and resources. In south Sudan, boys are generally given preference over girls. From early childhood, girls and boys are socialized to perform strictly defined gendered behaviours and roles. For instance, a famous Nuer saying that was frequently repeated by the people I interviewed is, "The man should be the ruler of the home, and his wife should unquestioningly act according to his will." That explains why, in the Dinka and Nuer communities, male children are given preference over females. A sixty-year-old southern Sudanese woman I interviewed in Nairobi in 2001 explained,

Back home, male children were preferred to females because they were considered to be the heirs of the family lineage. It is believed that girls would get married off to other families while boys carry and preserve the family's name and heritage. Therefore, in my village [in Eastern Upper Nile] there was a lot of pressure on pregnant women, from their families and in-laws, to give birth to male children. Not bearing boys is often considered to be the woman's fault. That is why some men feel justified in marrying a second wife [or more wives] in order to give birth to a male successor. As the above quotation illustrates, patriarchal notions of femininity and masculinity are central in shaping such gendered meanings, identities, and institutions. Children are taught to respect and obey their parents and the elderly, particularly male figures. Females are obliged to obey their male relatives when they are young, and such obedience is automatically transferred to their husbands and male in-laws upon marriage. A key traditional practice in these marriages is the bridewealth payment by the groom's family, in cattle as well as in cash. (10) Marriage means that the bride's family relinquishes control over her reproductive and productive ability and grants it to her husband and his family in return for bridewealth. The concept of bridewealth allows men the right to control the labour and productivity of women and children and renders the women invisible. (11)

To reiterate, invisibility and male dominance help explain the unequal power relations within the southern Sudanese communities. I argue that historically, gender perceptions have been defined in ways that privilege male-dominated structures while, at the same time, subordinating women. In the next section, I examine how women's marginalization has been exacerbated as a direct result of armed conflicts in south Sudan and protracted refugee experiences in the Kakuma camp. As a result, the so-called "lost boys" of Sudan have remained visible in the camps, as well as in the United States, while the girls' needs have become invisible and their voices silenced.

Protracted Refugee Situations and Southern Suaanese Refugees

In Sudan, forced displacement is not merely a consequence of armed conflicts; it has repeatedly been used as a deliberate weapon of war. (12)

For instance, between 1955 and 2005, armed conflicts between successive governments in northern Sudan and the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA) in the south produced over 4.5 million refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs). The armed conflict in southern Sudan stemmed from deeply entrenched forms of oppression, inequality, and exclusion. Gender, social, economic, and political inequalities have exacerbated the conflict. (13) In 1983, the government of Sudan (GOS) used scorched-earth strategies to forcibly displace the Dinka and Nuer communities from their territories in southern Sudan. For instance, the northern government targeted and burned villages in order to secure the territories around the oil fields, which intensified the displacement of millions of south Sudanese refugees, including the people I interviewed. The conflict altered the demographic and gender aspects of the southern Sudanese society. It is estimated that the armed conflicts have resulted in the death of over 2.5 million southern Sudanese and skewed the population structures so that young persons under age fifteen make up 53 per cent of the population. Moreover, because so many men were either killed or displaced during the armed conflict, females are estimated...

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