Book review – Hope, Pain and Patience

2011-11-05 10:23

The worn-out journalism adage, if it bleeds it leads comes to mind when you first see the cover of this book. The stories cover the traumas facing women in South Sudan (as well as other war-torn African counties) and raises ethical questions.

Does telling these stories help to improve the lot of these women? What is the role of the reader or viewer in the witnessing of such atrocities? Does the reporting of injustice and war in Africa help to reinforce negative perceptions of the continent? Hope, Pain and Patience deals with all these questions.

The authors are researchers, academics, human rights lawyers and NGO workers who spent a considerable amount of time in pre- and post-independence South Sudan. They spoke to women of different ages and backgrounds about their lives.

They reveal how South Sudanese society operates; the importance of marriage and how it binds families together and promotes reproduction, often at the cost of the woman’s health and emotional wellbeing.

Many young women are forced into marriage and those who suffer from abuse are often discouraged by family members from leaving such unions, which results in situations in which men behave with impunity towards their wives. The practice of polygyny, according to this book, rarely empowers women.

Marital rape is not recognised and there is hardly any punishment for men who do not take care of their families. Adultery is punishable with a jail sentence and women often bear the brunt because a man who wants another woman can just take her as a wife (men can have as many wives as they want) whereas an unhappy woman can’t easily obtain a divorce.

Her husband can abandon her and her children for years; if she meets another man she can’t have a relationship with him until she is divorced and if she does get involved with that other man, she can be jailed for adultery.

The power of marriage in South Sudanese society is such that it is the only means through which a woman can achieve any kind of status. Even educated, urban women have to be married in order to receive any respect. The stigma that comes with divorce, widowhood and barrenness is palpable.

Rape is another human rights violation that is endemic in South Sudan. It was used systematically as a weapon of war. Soldiers use the bodies of women to communicate how powerful they are to their enemies.

Being able to protect your wives and children is essential to your masculinity and them being raped in front of you means you are powerless. That is the gist of the message. Rape also has other uses: a man wishing to take a woman who is not keen on him as a husband can rape her. That is then used as leverage to negotiate marriage.

The woman’s family can coerce her to agree to the marriage in order to save face. because the societal shame that is brought on by rape means that rapists escape unpunished.

Hope, Pain & Patience also reveals what the lives of female combatants in South Sudan’s civil war were like. Some were forced into the military and others chose to join up. Most worked in auxiliary positions; sending weapons to the front lines, cooking and nursing the wounded.

After the war they returned to their communities and many found it difficult to assimilate. They lacked education and some were considered too old to marry. As is the case with war veterans in other parts of the world, women are often not recognised for their efforts in combat.

There is a harrowing chapter about sex work in Juba. Girls as young as 11 are sold into prostitution in brothels that house up to 800 young women. Most of the women interviewed say they hate what they do. But in many cases, they were sexually violated and decided to go into sex work because at least they could rely on getting money for food.

There is hope, however. There are midwives who look after the health of a nation, young mothers who recognise the value of education and activists who have set their goals on policy reviews and parliament.

There are many opportunities in the world’s youngest country to build infra-structure and trade. The hope arrives a little late in the story, just as you’re about to pull your hair out from frustration, but it’s there.

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