Gender often shapes our understanding of what power is and how it works. While women and girls are typically assigned the nurturing roles of wives, sisters, and mothers, men are defined by their individuality, their social relationships, and their sense of dominance. If a widely accepted definition of ‘power’ is the ability to make others do what you wanted them to, any discussions surrounding it arguably reflect the male experience of the world.
Despite the presence of advocacy groups like the South Sudan Women Empowerment Network and the South Sudan Women Coalition, power and gender disparities in the youngest nation on the planet are far from over. A 2017 report by Oxfam International reveals that the number of women occupying high-ranking government positions remains below the 25% threshold mandated by the Transitional Constitution of South Sudan in 2011. The assumption is that women are too weak and passive to hold positions of authority, but Mrs. Achol Aluel, a mother of five girls and a strong advocate for female-led leadership in South Sudan, feels differently. “Our girls and women are dying daily due to unreported cases of misused power from [men].” She believes that it is cultural subordination, rather than an inherent weakness, that gives women less power over decision-making. “[Women] need to be taught leadership skills so they can depend on themselves.”
Gender inequality starts at home. By positioning women as givers rather than leaders, the patriarchal nature of South Sudanese society perpetuates a gruesome magnitude of violence against women and girls. According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the country has among the highest maternal mortality and child marriage rates in the world. Traditional judicial systems that mostly comprise clan headmen and chiefs also rely on customary laws that disadvantage women in the name of conflict resolution and restorative justice. As a result, South Sudanese women are often denied access to education, fair trials, and the right to inheritance.
This can lead to learned behaviour, where young girls become disillusioned and hopeless in their belief that men are socially superior and have a natural right to asserting their power over women. But an argument can be made that the root cause of gender inequality is, in fact, power abuse. According to the ‘Four Powers’ framework by Dr. Jo Rowlands, author of Questioning Empowerment and a governance advisory leader at Oxfam GB, power comes in four forms. ‘Power with’ is a shared power that grows out of positive collaborations, collective action and mutual support. ‘Power within’ relates to self-knowledge or a sense of self-worth that includes tolerance and respect for differences in others. ‘Power to’ refers to one’s potential to create and become a positive influence on others without coercion.
Of all the four models, however, ‘power over’ is the most common. Unlike the others, this is a power motivated by force, fear, domination, and control. It is based on the belief that power is a finite resource that can only be held by some individuals, but not others. Unfortunately, this is a wrong misconception. Power is never static. Rather, it is a movement; a relationship that changes constantly. What happens when power becomes a limitless energy that is available to all — rather than just a chosen few?
‘Power over’ South Sudanese women occurs in many different forms — including physical, sexual, financial, and emotional abuse. This gross imbalance is made worse by the fact that women rarely report their abusers out of fear, as well as a broken judicial system that prevents them from being believed. Ongoing conflicts in the country are also blocking sustainable solutions to gender inequality, with limited resources available to key government and NGO players that advocate for women’s rights.
In order to break this chain of power misuse, South Sudanese women must come to terms with the root causes of power and gender inequities. Because gender and power are intrinsically linked, there is a need to understand that gender stereotypes only serve to reinforce ‘power over’ dynamics. The false belief that all women should be meek, quiet, and obedient while all men are naturally imposing and all-knowing have become pillars that hold up our society. Yet, the UNDP Report on Gender Equality and Women Empowerment Strategy states that women should play a bigger role in the development, planning, and implementation of policies and programs in the country. Increasing female participation in sectors like education and health can directly contribute to a reduction in poverty rates and field economic growth.
This shows that the negative repercussions of gender violence are far-reaching, and no longer limited to just women. Mainstreaming conversations around power abuse and gender inequality is therefore everyone’s duty. There is first a need to raise awareness at the household level on the value of a girl-child — to understand that daughters are not property, but individuals with the potential to participate actively in society, just like everybody else. Girls should also be granted access to education, and the right to make decisions about their own bodies on issues such as unwanted pregnancy. Similarly, men and boys need to be actively engaged on topics surrounding power abuse and gender, and be encouraged to practice and promote nonviolent behaviour.
The widespread reform of women’s civil rights — including equal pay, divorce, property ownership, and custody — can only be possible if there is a comprehensive long-term collaboration between the government and all corners of civil society. South Sudanese women deserve to express themselves freely in the world, and to create conditions where power is not hoarded, but shared by all. And when a woman is empowered, the whole nation succeeds.
Nyaluak Lam is a 25-year-old South Sudanese refugee based in Nairobi, Kenya. She holds a BA in Business with a concentration in Logistics and Operations from the University of Southern New Hampshire. She has additionally worked with various refugee feminism agencies in Kenya to raise awareness on equality issues.