Last week Linda and I were involved in running a three-day seminar for all of the County Education Directors from the eight Counties in Lakes State, and all of their “Gender Inspectors”.
The central Government in Juba has a Minister for Gender, whose job it is to try to address some of the glaring inequalities that exist in this society between men and women, boys and girls.
Men run everything in Rumbek and even well-educated men have difficulty in taking women seriously. When Linda corrected some examination papers written by a senior teacher, his comment was “You may be an old woman, but you are as intelligent as me!” Heaven forfend.
I can’t escape the thought that the existence of a Minister for Gender has more to do with the need to be echoing the concerns of wealthy aid donors than any real concern to improve the lives and life chances of women and girls. However, the Ministry exists at Central level, so it is replicated at State level and down to the Counties.
So, sitting in each County Education Office is a Gender Inspector, most of whom are men, inevitably, and whose job it is to …….? And there lies the problem. Nobody really knows what these Inspectors should be doing.
So that’s where the idea of a Gender Seminar came from.
The first hurdle to overcome was to dispel the idea that ‘gender’ means ‘girls’ or ‘women’, because, if it does, it is easily dismissed as not very important. We had to explain that when we look at Gender issues, we are looking at the interaction between men and women and the power relations between the two.
This led us into a discussion of the difference between questions of ‘gender’ and questions of ‘sex’
For example, the fact that women have babies and men have deeper voices is a matter of sex. It’s biological, it’s the same all over the world and it doesn’t change.
However, the fact that women carry water and do the cooking and that men look after the cows has nothing to do with sex, it is a division of roles that is decided by society.
The fact that many parents will decide to send their boys to school and not their girls, (the logic being that it’s worth investing in the boys because they will stay with the family, whereas the girls will be married off into another family), is a gender issue.
The fact that when and to whom a girl will be married will be decided by men, regardless of the opinion of the girl or her female relatives, is a gender issue.
In our own society, the fact that it has taken years for the principle of “equal pay for work of equal value” to be accepted and that it still is not fully implemented, is a gender issue.
So our seminar touched on some deeply sensitive areas and, hopefully, set trains of thought going that had never been considered before.
An early response to some of these challenges was “But it’s part of our culture.” We had to point out that the fact that something is part of the culture does not mean that it is set in concrete. Culture and concrete are two different things.
Not so long ago, it was part of Dinka culture not to send children to school. That has changed. Within living memory, as people here are fond of telling us, the Dinka wore no clothes. It was part of their culture. Now things are different. Questions of culture and questions of gender are not immutable.
There is a mountain to be climbed before much will change for women in this part of the world. This was illustrated by one of the sessions during the seminar which was on Gender-based Violence and how it impacts upon the education of girls in schools.
We first had to define ‘violence’ and that took us way beyond the idea of one person hitting (or shooting) another. Violence was eventually defined as “ an abuse of power that happens when an individual or a group uses their power over someone against their will or consent in a harmful way.”
This opened the door to the idea of emotional and psychological violence, sexual violence and even ‘economic violence’, the controlling of women’s access to money, jobs and financial independence. But back to physical violence.
One of the most lively discussions that arose was when we looked at violence within the home. Two of the gender inspectors argued strongly that beating your wife is not violence and should not be considered in the same league as beating someone in the street. The logic was that it was sometimes necessary to punish and correct your wife, if she annoyed you or did something wrong. After all, you paid cows for her, didn’t you?
This echoed the comment of another colleague in the Ministry who told us, with only the faintest twinkle in his eye, that there is no ‘domestic violence’ in South Sudan; only ‘domestic discipline’. Our two Gender Inspectors, however, were defending their point of view with great earnestness and without the faintest hint of irony.
Some of the greatest revelations came when we distributed copies of the relevant sections of the 2008 Child Act and the 2012 Education Act. These are actually the laws of South Sudan, that have been drawn up by Parliament and signed into law by the President. The trouble is that laws get passed in Juba and then not disseminated to the States, let alone to the Counties, so no-one knows what they contain.
More than one County Director’s jaw dropped when he read that anyone caught administering corporal punishment in a school is guilty of assault and liable, on conviction, “to imprisonment for a term not exceeding fourteen years”. In addition to that, anyone who witnesses ‘an infringement of a child’s rights’, (which corporal punishment definitely is), and fails to report it, is liable to a term of imprisonment of up to six months.
Well, that’s me then. I’ve seen kids being whacked with a stick in a school and I didn’t report it to the police. Six months in Rumbek prison doesn’t sound like much fun. Fortunately there is a big difference between a law being enacted and a law being implemented.
Did our three day seminar make any difference? I have no idea. You just have to be optimistic that a new idea or a new thought planted today might lead to some re-thinking at some point in the future. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and South Sudan certainly won’t be.
But, hey, during the three days of discussion, argument and challenge, nobody died, nobody fought, nobody even stormed off in a rage. People listened, people talked and people discussed, so that’s not a bad start.