Izzy Schellenger II Staff Writer
On Wednesday, April 13, the Africana Studies department, the Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies department, Weis College House, and the Sudan Institute for Research and Policy sponsored a talk by Dr. Jane Kani Edward that focused on her research about conflict, customary law, and women’s rights in South Sudan. Edward, an assistant professor in the African and African American Studies department at Fordham University, was born and raised in Southern Sudan. She received her education in Sudan, Egypt, and Canada, including her Ph.D in Sociology in Education from the University of Toronto in 2004. Her research focuses on the experiences of women, refugees, and immigrants in South Sudan, while focusing on the issues regarding human rights and education in areas of conflict.
Edward’s presentation gave an overview of her research paper that she wrote about the experiences of women in South Sudan. At the beginning of her lecture, she gave some background information about how South Sudan became an independent state in July 2011. She discussed two civil wars that occurred in South Sudan. The first civil war lasted for 17 years, between 1955 and 1972, and it ended in the same year that she started school. The second civil war is considered to be one of the longest conflicts in Africa’s history, lasting for 21 years between 1983 and 2005.
The Comprehensive Peace Agreement ended this civil war, and the signing of this peace treaty also led to changing the constitution of South Sudan. These changes in the constitution included more rights for women, and it included the allocation of 25 percent affirmative action for women’s representation in all levels of government. However, despite this seemingly positive change, there were still human rights offenses being committed against women, which were enabled because of the customary law that governs South Sudan and because of the violent, two-year conflict that occurred in Juba in 2013. As of January 2016, 55,000 people from South Sudan fled to other parts of Sudan to escape famine and violence happening within their home communities.
Edward’s introduction provided context into the environment that South Sudanese people are currently experiencing. She used this as a framework for her paper about the interplay of customary law, gender configurations, and civil war, as well as how women’s rights affect their access to education, healthcare, and legal systems.
Edward also studies how gender is conceptualized in South Sudan. When the British came to colonize Sudan, they introduced their own, Westernized configuration of gender which re-emphasized the stereotypical and patriarchal differences between men and women, such as the man always being the breadwinner of a household. She also studies how this interacts with customary law. She defined customary law as the widely accepted and largely used traditions and social rules that govern traditional African societies. These customary laws govern the personal issues of the citizens in these African societies, such as marriage, divorce, property ownership, and inheritance. Customary law relates to the configuration of gender in South Sudan by determining how motherhood is valued and respected in these traditional societies. Women gain status by being mothers and as they age, as they become considered guardians of culture and tradition.
However, because of the value that is placed on motherhood, customary laws can oppress women because they prevent women from participating in politics and affairs that are separate from their household and family. Additionally, customary law does not specify the age at which women are allowed to marry. This culture leads to young girls entering into arranged marriages. Wife-beating and polygamy are also sanctioned by customary law, which influences women’s rights as well as goes against the traditional value placed on motherhood.
Edward also talked about how customary law affects a woman’s access to justice. She described how the South Sudanese judiciary system is organized, which includes special courts that are dedicated to dealing with cases that concern customary law. These County Courts tend to limit or delay a woman’s chances in getting legal help in domestic or even life-threatening situations.
When discussing how customary law affects a woman’s education in South Sudan, Edward said that more than 80 percent of people in South Sudan are unable to read and write. Customary law contributes to this illiteracy because of how young, adolescent women are sometimes pulled out of the education system so that they can have an arranged marriage. Additionally, women’s education in general is devalued because of how women are seen solely as mothers and caregivers in their families.
Edward said that since 2005, the amount of gender-based violence in South Sudan has increased, including some more extreme cases such as murder. Edward connects this increase with the South Sudanese constructions of masculinity and femininity, where the militarization of South Sudan in times of conflict is likely to influence masculine identities.
Although the Constitution guarantees women’s rights, societal reliance on customary laws means that women’s rights will not fully be recognized. Edward concluded her lecture by offering possible solutions to this problem, which includes engaging men in the fight against the marginalization and oppression of women.
Sophomore Izzy Schellenger is a staff writer. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.