04.23.16

How Many Cows for an Educated Girl?

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“The pen [education] is a good thing. It’s good when you learn how to read and how to write and how to use the pen in your life. . . . If you have a small mind, you can just remain in the village with your family and live an empty life. But if you go to school, school will change your mind and it will change all the bad things. You will have your mind to better things.” 34 year-old female, Twic County, South Sudan.

As most people who follow development issues are well aware, educating women and girls is widely hailed as the single activity that most dramatically increases all other development goals. It reduces poverty, increases economic activity, betters nutrition, reduces conflict and a host of other good things.

This message in its most generic form – education is good — seems to have been received loud and clear in many developing countries. But how this message gets enacted quickly becomes highly complex as it makes its way through the filters of local culture, custom, economics and gender roles.

A recent report produced by Internews about women, education and information in South Sudan offers insight into the critical nature of careful and sensitive understanding of local context in order to avoid unintended consequences.

Education: The Golden Dream

South Sudan, the world’s newest nation, has experienced conflict and dislocation at every level of society for decades. Along with this unrest has come a massive influx of international organizations, bringing new expectations and models of success into a traditional, agrarian culture. Women are starting to question their traditional roles and seeking alternatives without a clear idea of where to begin.

In this mix, the idea of getting an education has become a golden dream, often loaded with unrealistic and unclear expectations. Education, which women call “the pen”, represents not only an escape from the frustrations of their current lives, but most believe it inevitably leads to a brighter future, new jobs, significant material wealth and a transformed existence. Most women, according to the study, hold this dream as an article of blind faith and have very little understanding of how to access these miraculous changes.

The Stark Reality

The Internews study, which ran 30 focus groups and performed 35 individual interviews in five states in South Sudan, found women’s roles to be quite similar across the country.   More than 80% of women live in rural areas and are farmers. Their lives progress predictably from childhood to adolescence to marriage and motherhood. Women, in charge of the domestic life of the family, are expected to produce as many children as possible and perform with the very time consuming chores of the rural home, which include collecting water and increasingly scarce firewood for cooking. Domestic violence is common and widely sanctioned; 80% of men and women believe that men have the right to physically abuse their wives.

The highlight of most women’s lives is the moment when she is sent to the cattle camp when her first menstrual cycle arrives. She is now a candidate for marriage. One young woman described the cattle camp experience. “Someone might admire her there, and if they admire her that person can marry her. . . . If someone has cows and marries the girl, and she can also try to cultivate, to fetch water – those are the things a wife can do when she is home.”

The Dowry Economy: How Many Cows for an Educated Girl?

The golden dream of the pen has begun to disrupt this very traditional culture, mixing in unanticipated ways with the existing economic function of women represented by the dowry economy.

As the study revealed, the new dream of education has become entwined with the traditional dream of domestic value in ways that are challenging to distinguish. The pen and the dowry were discussed as a paired concept with an unexpected twist. Instead of an education leading to freedom and autonomy, education becomes a way for a women to be worth more within the dowry economy. As one women explained, “Education is very important for your daughter, because if a girl becomes educated she can bring more dowry than an uneducated girl. You should not educate only boys; you should educate girls also because educated girls are equal to boys.”

A herd of cattle on its way to market. Wau, Upper Nile state, August 2014. Photo credit: Jean Luc Dushim/Internews A herd of cattle on its way to market. Wau, Upper Nile state, August 2014. Photo credit: Jean Luc Dushim/Internews

This perspective gets complicated quickly.

One of the results of on-going conflict has been a rapid inflation in dowry prices – from between 50 to 200 cows per women. This has encouraged families to marry their daughters earlier. 36% of girls in South Sudan now marry before the age of 18.

In this context, the calculations begin. How long should a girl stay in school to achieve the ultimate increase in dowry value before she gets too old and her value begins to drop again? At what point is it worth it to take a girl out of school? 20 cows? 40 cows? 60 cows?

Another consideration is the fear that if girls stay in school too long, they will become “spoiled”. As one women said, “My husband brought so many cows that my parents were happy and they were saying, ‘If we had allowed her to be educated more, then she would have been spoiled and wouldn’t have brought these cows to us.’ They were like, ‘This is what we wanted. She is now married with the cows we wanted her to be married with.’”

This begs the question. Are those who are advocating for education for girls actually reinforcing existing unequal roles and responsibilities?

Young women attend to their daily chores in the United Nation’s camp in South Sudan where 21,000 displaced people have lived since Dec 2013. Photo credit: Jean Luc Dushime/Internews Young women attend to their daily chores in the United Nation’s camp in South Sudan where 21,000 displaced people have lived since Dec 2013. Photo credit: Jean Luc Dushime/Internews

Information equality vs. information distribution

The Internews study was undertaken to understand the best way to support information distribution and access for women in South Sudan. The study quickly found that the concept of information is a meaningless idea for South Sudanese women unless it is linked to the dream of “the pen” and the topic quickly shifted to understanding “educational information.”

Education is seen as a route toward greater equality.   In this context, it is more important that the information be valuable and relevant to women than it be widely distributed. Much of the focus in South Sudan has been on establishing functioning information distribution platforms, largely via radio in the rural areas. As the study shows, information distribution is necessary, but not sufficient. And if the right messages (education is good) are distributed without a way to help women and girls act on it, it can backfire. Even through women throughout the country believe deeply in the power of education, most do not have a clear sense of what that actually means or how to get one. The numbers back this up. On average, there are 7 girls for every 10 boys in primary school. By secondary school, this number drops to 5 in 10.

The way forward

If the goal is to help women in South Sudan achieve greater equality, the information strategy needs to shift from a distribution model toward more relevant and valued educational information. This means developing substantive educational programming supported by clear expectation setting. This programming should be based on clear educational needs and the content should be linked to specific applications and outcomes relevant for women in South Sudan. Goals should be realistic and practical, such as forming learning/listening groups for women interested in going into business together.

It is also important to destigmatize women who work outside the home. Educational programming can be tied to positive stories about women small business owners and show keepers, teaching basic literacy, simple accounting practices and how to work with local government.

Finally, any approach to information equality must be accompanied by the understanding that women in South Sudan live with extreme time poverty. Any advances that can be delivered to help streamline their daily chores will be critical to the update of practical and effective educational programming.

Women in South Sudan understand that education is wonderful. Now it is time to help make their golden dream into an achievable reality.


This article originally appeared on Medium.com.