7-year-old girl in South Sudan unknowingly awaits blood compensation pact
Seven-year-old Nancy does not know it yet, but in five or six years’ time she will have to give up her home life and become the property of a family she has never met, all because her mother committed a crime.
Two years ago, the mother got into an argument with another woman in Torit Town in Imatong state in the south of South Sudan. The argument developed into a fight, which, in turn, led to a fatal blow to the head with a glass bottle.
Nancy, just five at the time of the incident, was promised to the family of the woman who was killed in, what is known as “blood compensation.” It is a traditional and deeply cultural approach to justice, which although illegal in South Sudan is widely practiced, especially by the Lotuko ethnic group which lives in Imatong state.
Since the conflict erupted in South Sudan in 2013, the rule of law has eroded and it is often left to committed activists to defend young girls’ rights.
Davidika Graciano Ikai, is a human rights and gender activist in Torit, but also a relative of Nancy.
“She is a carefree girl, like any other seven year old. Her mother is free, she wasn’t charged with the killing, but in return she must give up her daughter. Nancy doesn’t know this yet and it makes me very sad. I will work to eradicate this practice.”
The two families in dispute met with community leaders and came to the blood compensation agreement.
Nancy’s fate is far from clear. She may be taken as a wife by one of the male members of her new family at around the age of 12, or she may be married out to earn a dowry; the current bride price in Torit is 18 cows and between 60 and 120 goats.
Blood compensation is just one of many practices that makes growing up as a girl in Imatong so perilous. The early and forced marriage that Nancy is highly likely to face is part of a pattern of injustice and abuses that women and girls endure, a pattern that often leads to rape and violence.
There is some hope for women in Torit, with the imminent opening of a “safe house.” Supported by the UN peacekeeping mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), the residential-cum-transit facility will provide protection and services to what the UN has called “vulnerable civilians in need of protection.”
The protection of civilians is a central focus of the mandate of the mission.
The vulnerable people include survivors of rape and other gender-based sexual violence, young people recovered from abduction, children in conflict with the law, street children and girl-children like Nancy, who might want to escape and find refuge from blood compensation arrangements.
“This safe house will provide valuable protection and services to women, including counselling, health care and legal services if a woman wants legal redress,” says Juliana Mamoi Choko, the mayor of Torit.
She is one of many women who serve as local officials; in fact 65 per cent of the chairpersons of the standing committees in the state parliament are women, an unprecedented share in this male-dominated society.
“The house will provide those important services,” said Mayor Choko, “but more importantly, it will help to transform the traditional culture of this state and hopefully ultimately play a part in eradicating gender-based violence and harmful cultural practices.”
The UNMISS base in Torit is playing a key role in bringing about change, not just through the building of the safe house but by raising awareness about gender and human rights issues. In February this year, 40 government SPLA officers received training on gender and conflict-related sexual violence.
Road patrols by peacekeepers can also contribute to providing some security for women. They can help to counter a particularly hateful and humiliating crime whereby women outside urban areas are picked up on the road, often by men in uniform, strip searched for valuables and then left to wander naked, once the degrading theft has concluded.
The head of UNMISS, David Shearer, visited the safe house in Torit:
“This excellent facility was planned by the local authorities and is an example of what can be achieved when there are a majority of women in power,” he said and added:
“I’m pleased UNMISS can support victims of gender violence in this way and am convinced this safe house will make a difference for women and girls.”