“Girls are not cows”: Discussing the rights of females in Cuei Chok
As people gathered to commemorate the International Human Rights Day at Cuei Chok Primary School, I came across a group of seven teenage girls aged between 13 and 16 years seated with a 13-year-old boy. Attempting to talk to them, only the boy responded.
Me: Why aren’t your sisters responding?
Boy: They don’t understand English because they don’t go to school.
Me: So, you go to school and they don’t. Why?
Boy: Because they are cows. They are about to get married.
This honest discussion with the boy formed the basis for the discussion on the state of human rights held in Cuei Chok with community leaders, elders and women representatives.
While none of the girls spoke up to prove their friend wrong, Gender Affairs Officer Doris Saydee, serving with the United Nations Mission in South Sudan, begged to differ with the bovine statement of the frank boy. In fact, the theme of the dialogue she moderated among participants was “Girls are not cows”. It focused on the hows and whys of how the rights of girls and women are often ignored or neglected.
One part of the challenge of ensuring gender equality, it seemed, are cultural norms and practices. Another reason being put forward was the persistent issue of insecurity.
One local chief participating in the discussion was keen to put the latter factor to bed.
“The conflict is over. Now everyone can go to school including girls and women,” he said.
Adeng Ruth, one of the young girls who had the rare opportunity to sit amongst men to voice her concerns offered a solution to the common problem of girls not attending school.
“We need to create women role models in all the regions. Take them to school and bring them back to the communities. When the people see the achievements of these women, they will also start sending their girls to school,” she professed.
Earlier in the week, when the peacekeeping mission engaged with local government administrators in Rumbek on the role of women in the South Sudan Revitalized Peace Agreement, UNMISS staffer Caroline Opok challenged the men in the room.
“You prefer cows which do not talk to you to your daughters who talk and laugh with you every day,” she provoked.
In response, the men, an overwhelming majority of Ms. Opok’s audience, made a pledge to be the roles models needed to promote and implement the rights of girls and women. One to keep an eye on.
Another top issue on the minds of community leaders in Cuei Chok was proxy arrests: the unfortunate occurrence of individuals being detained for crimes committed by relatives or friends.
Participants in the dialogue were quick to admit to their limited knowledge of justice, law and accountability processes, citing this lack of awareness as a key challenge.
“We want the right people to be arrested and held accountable, but we do not understand how the justice system works,” one local leader recognized.
Community members, it was recommended, need to play a more active role in making sure that the actual criminals, rather than their family members, are sanctioned.
“Communities always know what is happening. So, the justice, law and accountability systems rely heavily on you for information” Thandizo Mwambala, a Human Rights Officer serving with UNMISS, emphasized.
The often delayed expedition of criminal cases and inter-communal rivalries were other human rights concerns raised during the discussion.