Today’s International Women’s Day blog is by guest blogger, Erin Polich. Erin is currently working on a health project in the world’s newest country, South Sudan.
SPOTLIGHT: WOMEN IN SOUTH SUDAN
I have two reactions when thinking of women in South Sudan. One is full of heartbreak and frustration at the relative female powerlessness pervasive throughout the culture. The other is immense pride at the fights won and still being waged for women in South Sudan. Somehow it’s the ebb and flow of these two realities which make the newest country in the world what it is today: a nation at the crossroads of its future.
South Sudan currently has the world’s worst maternal mortality. The statistics are poignant and gloomy:
A child born has a one in forty-eight chance of losing his mother at childbirth. A woman in South Sudan has a one in seven lifetime risk of dying in child birth. This is a greater chance than she has of finishing school. Eighty-seven percent of women deliver in their homes without a skilled attendant (silently, because making noise during childbirth is seen as a selfish action which disturbs others nearby). Eighty percent of women polled believe it is okay for a woman to be beaten by her husband for certain reasons. Women are sold into marriage for cattle. They suffer from the feminization of HIV infections due to polygamy, a lack of bargaining power in sex, and high poverty rates which lead women to seek employment in a burgeoning sex trade. A meeting I attended recently informed me that men should be the ones deciding if a woman uses contraception because “It’s called family planning. Otherwise it would be called women’s planning.”
As someone who grew up in the United States, who early on identified proudly as being a feminist, who viewed attending college as an inevitability instead of a fantasy, and who worked in multiple domestic violence shelters, being throw into this overwhelming patriarchal and oppressive culture is a bit of a challenge. Daily heart rending moments remind me just how far women globally have come, and just how far there is left to go. Despite this, I see the small accomplishments which are moving towards attitudes and practices slowly towards gender equity.
In South Sudan, more and more women are finishing school each year. The government recently sent an entire class of women for midwifery training (the first of several) who will return to meet their community needs. Women form support and activist groups to advocate at both village and national levels. And in the newly formed Government of the Republic of South Sudan, 25% of seats at each level of government are to be set aside for women. While this might not be attained at all levels, 7 of 29 ministers are female with the ability to advocate for issues that effect them.
Recently I visited a health facility in Warrap State, a swampy state in the northern part of the country, which often finds areas inaccessible for months at a time due to the rainy season. In the maternity ward, I met Christine, a midwife trained in Uganda who had come back to South Sudan to improve maternal health services in her country. When I asked about family planning, Christine’s eyes grew bright as she explained that while overall numbers remain low, she’s seen a significant upward trend in women inquiring about both natural and hormonal methods. She turned to me and, looking shyly in my eyes while discussing the women coming in for counseling, said, “Culture, it is slow to change. But slowly, slowly.”
100 years ago, women in America couldn’t vote. They couldn’t hold political office. They died in childbirth at astronomical rates. When I reflect on this impressive cultural transformation in the US, despite the ongoing battles women continue to wage, I am reminded of progress women are capable of achieving. I look at the immense progress women are making every day here, and I am inspired. I cannot wait to see how women in South Sudan, the newest country in the world, will transform their own country.
About the author:
Erin Polich is currently working on a health project in South Sudan. She graduated from Fordham University in 2007 with a degree in Political Science, History, and Peace and Justice. She has experience working in domestic violence, labor rights, environmental consulting, and public health because she is bad at sitting still and focusing and besides everything is interconnected anyways. In 2011, she finished a degree in International Public Health at Boston University School of Public Health where she concentrated in gender and sexual health. Her culminating experience looked at the cost-effectiveness and feasibility of expanding IUD usage as contraception in sub-Saharan Africa. She enjoys coffee, black lab mutts, discussing sexual health and infectious disease, riding bikes, and being not at a computer despite being addicted to the sultry allure of the internet. She also occasionally blogs at www.erininjuba.wordpress.com,