Culture, Gender, and Education in South Sudan

The concept of culture, defined as “the beliefs and customs of a particular nation or group,” dominates many societies from Asia to the Americas, Europe to Africa. In addition, it informs why societies do what they do differently than the rest, how they respond to change, and how they behave in different cultures. For many people, culture is a defining characteristic. As well as sanctioning political life, it also limits social life. From a young age, we are wired to align ourselves with our forebears’ customs and beliefs. Since cultures define a given race, humanity would not make sense without them. We can argue that it is the diversity of our world that makes it so beautiful. On the other hand, the same culture can also be turned on its head – static and malleable to change, it is susceptible to spatial and temporal shifts. As an example, the world of 1914 is different from the world of 2023. In the past few years, there have been a lot of changes that have placed great pressure on sanctioned norms and accepted beliefs. Due to the changes in time and place, new tools and techniques are introduced along with them – including those that accompany formal education. Against this background, this article presents the nexus of culture, gender and education in the context of South Sudan, considering the case of the Nuer.

In South Sudan, culture has a significant impact on gender roles and expectations. A woman’s role as a wife and mother is regarded as more important than her education or career aspirations in society. As a result of this cultural expectation, South Sudanese women find themselves in a dilemma when balancing their career and education ambitions. Culture is shaped, in part, by education, understood as the practice of teaching, training, and learning in order to develop knowledge and abilities. As children, our parents teach us to behave in certain ways in order to conform to society’s norms. In order to be upright and honest, we are trained not to cheat, lie, or steal from others regardless of the circumstances. By doing so, we gain a deeper understanding of the customs and beliefs that have ordered our society for generations. As part of our formal education, we learn how to read and write. As students, we learn life skills such as financial accounting, argumentative abilities, logical thinking, and economic analysis. By learning how to communicate more effectively, we can deliver a message without losing its meaning. Additionally, education plays an important role in empowering women and achieving gender equality. In spite of this, South Sudanese women face significant obstacles in accessing education due to cultural and societal barriers. Among them are gender-based violence and early marriage.  Furthermore, educated women are still caught between an old tradition and a modern work world. 

Due to this, the traditional economy based on division of labor is no longer valid since both men and women work for wages, contributing their fair share to the household. The result is new theaters of conflict as different genders try to preserve outdated customs and beliefs. A Nuer man, for instance, is caught between respecting his culture, which expects women to be in the kitchen, and a career woman with the skill necessary to earn an income. Similarly, Nuer women, with their acquired knowledge, are now asking questions and demanding more spaces outside the household. As income earners and breadwinners, they see themselves as equal to men. In this case, there is a clash between culturally acceptable expectations and the new reality of Nuer women as breadwinners. Due to this, there may be tensions and conflicts between the two genders in society as they adjust to the changing roles they play. For instance, some Nuer men are resistant to the idea of Nuer women working outside the home and earning an income, even though it is necessary for family survival (Hutchinson, 1980). According to them, women are expected to remain at home while their husbands work. A 21st-century economy, however, where income is proportional to skills, does not fit with this thinking. A few Nuer men are now realising that non-gendered income is crucial to their households, as well as to other social arrangements in their community. As an example, Nuer men in their younger generations understand the benefits of their wives and daughters working for income-generating activities.

By contrast, Nuer women have developed some strange characteristics due to their education. In some instances, the educated, for example, choose to remain single instead of settling down with a man. According to them, they are deprived of a great deal of freedom because of these men who wish to control their lives in a society in which individual freedom is valued. Moreover, some of them oppose any change in the traditional bride price. Even though evidence indicates that bride prices negatively affect women’s socioeconomic conditions, especially child brides (World Bank, 2018), this remains the case. Nevertheless, some evidence suggests that bride prices can occasionally be economically beneficial.  Based on the expected future returns on investment of an educated woman, Ashraf et al (2020) demonstrate, for example, that bride price positively affects girls’ education in Indonesia. It remains to be seen whether this evidence works in South Sudan due to notable differences between the two societies. Regardless of the merits of these claims, many men perceive them to be anti-cultural, arrogant, and rebellious. Nuer men believe that this development poses many problems to the institution of family as a stable and predictable institution. As an example, they view single women as a threat to traditional norms of marriage, which are central to their culture and identity. In their culture, marriage is viewed as the only way for a woman to gain respect and ensure that her children are taken care of. It is believed that single women pose a challenge to this, and disrupt the traditional social order.

This view has, however, been vigorously contested. As Nyajuok Tongyik claims in I am My Mother’s Wildest Dream, a divorcee who has become a gender activist, Nuer women are confined by cultural beliefs and norms that were not intended for them (Tongyik, 2021). In Tongyik’s view, Nuer women are unable to challenge traditional social norms because they are not given the freedom to choose how they live their lives. In her view, Nuer women will be able to lead more fulfilling and empowered lives if they are given the right to make their own decisions regarding their lives. There is validity to this presentation in light of the fact that gender-based violence is rampant in South Sudan. For instance, in April 2023, South Sudanese online community members were made aware of the harrowing story of Akuot Agany Kuot, whose eyes had been permanently damaged by her father. According to media reports, Agany Kuot committed the act so that his daughter would never have the opportunity to ‘marry on her own terms’ again.  This story highlights the prevalence of gender-based violence in South Sudan, as it indicates a wider problem in the country. This further underscores the need to raise awareness about this issue and create more meaningful conversations about it to bring about real and lasting change – something that Nyajuok tries to highlight through her work, and to which I actually contributed as I argue in this World Bank Blog.

However, despite this grave situation, there is also reason to believe that some South Sudanese women who have received higher education have mixed results.  For example, some women from the same social strata as Nyajuok, who have received an education, still choose abusive relationships. They believe this is for their families. In light of this, it is necessary to ask how liberating education can be in these circumstances? This suggests that education alone is not enough to empower women to break free from oppressive structures within society. Education must be accompanied by awareness and support for women to make informed decisions about their lives. It also highlights the need for further research on the relationship between education, culture, and the empowerment of women in South Sudan and similar contexts. For instance, research has shown that even when women are educated and have access to resources, they cannot access them due to patriarchal norms and expectations (Malhotra & Mather, 1997; Doss, 2006). Reportedly, this results from their limited agency to engage in decision-making that governs the household economy.

Additionally, some educated women in South Sudan choose polygamous families. These families are already a source of controversy and contradict the independence of educated women like Nyajuok advocates. The reason for this may be due to the fact that these women have been raised in a culture that places a greater emphasis on the needs of their families and communities than on their individual needs. Furthermore, they may also feel pressure from their families that they should remain in the relationship, since leaving would be viewed as a major failure and disruption. This means that even with an education, these women may still feel trapped in an abusive relationship. As an example of this phenomenon, the former Minister of Humanitarian Affairs and Disaster Management, Peter Mayen, stabbed his wife with a knife and a few days later was seen holding the victim and caressing her in public for what appeared to be a staged love affair. The majority of South Sudanese consider spousal violence a private matter, despite the fact that it can cause a woman life-threatening harm in most cases.  As an example, Peter Mayen was not charged despite the fact that spousal violence was clearly evident, indicating the lack of accountability for spousal violence. While he was relieved of his duties months later, it is unclear if his removal was related to his violent behavior. 

As part of its effort to demonstrate the connection between culture and education and how they are affecting South Sudanese women, this article illustrates how culture affects gender norms among educated women, considering the Nuer. During the discussion, the author has addressed the evidence of changing gender roles, how they are contested and constructed in the context of South Sudan.  It was reported in the article that, even among educated Nuer women, traditional gender roles remain in place in many respects. Oftentimes, women are expected to take on roles traditionally viewed as feminine, such as caring for the family and home, whereas men take on roles that are traditionally considered masculine, such as the primary provider for the family.  There are several reasons for this, including the fact that South Sudan is essentially a patriarchal society, and the social structure reinforces men’s and women’s traditional roles. Consequently, women may find it difficult to break free of traditional roles and explore more opportunities, such as higher education and career advancement.

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