In July 2010, I spent two weeks traveling as a volunteer with the Valentino Achak Deng Foundation in Marial Bai, Southern Sudan, along with two friends, Sarah, a freelance journalist with the UK Guardian and Danielle, a domestic violence counselor in Seattle. The three of us initiated a twice-a-week girls club at a secondary school established by Valentino’s Foundation to provide a safe space for girls to discuss reproductive health issues and offer peer support, and conducted meetings with women entrepreneurs in the market to increase their access to resources.
Our conversation with 20 bright girls from the secondary school exposed a stark reality of limited choice. Four of the young women were already married with children and yet these were some of luckiest girls in Southern Sudan; only 2.5 percent of women aged 15-24 are literate and girls are more likely to die in childbirth than they are to finish primary school. It took a while for the students to feel comfortable speaking, but once questions started there was no stopping them. The girls expressed concern for early pregnancies, forced marriages, and a lack of understanding and access to contraceptives
It was obvious from these conversations that in Marial Bai and the surrounding region there is a serious lack of reproductive and sexual health and women’s rights education compounded by a very traditional and gendered post-conflict context. According to the UNFPA the estimated maternal mortality rate is 1,700 deaths per 100,000 live births, the fifth highest in the world, and contraceptive prevalence rates are a mere 1%. This is a normal part of life for these young women. But they feel that the more they learn, the more they will be able to stand up to these types of injustices.
I donated Hesperian's book Where Women Have No Doctor* to a group of girls that are boarding at the school in an effort to answer many of the questions they began to ask. They were thrilled to receive the book, so much that I found them reading it over a truck’s headlight one night. The energy I felt after talking with these young women was both powerful and confusing. Looking beyond that moment it was clear that for things to shift in favor of women and girls, reproductive health education, including for boys and men, is crucial to helping women realize their right to health in Southern Sudan and around the world.
For many Southern Sudanese the first step to a decent and peaceful life lies in the upcoming referendum. Everyone I spoke with plans to vote for secession from the North come January 2011, despite the North’s efforts to “make unity attractive” by building roads and infrastructure. At this pivotal time in the history of Sudan all hands are needed to bring peace to a land that has known so much turmoil and pain.
* The Arab Resource Collective (ARC) has translated six Hesperian titles into Arabic, including Where Women Have No Doctor. The ARC is a regional non-profit organization based in Lebanon and working in a number of countries, including Sudan.