How Many Cows for an Educated Girl?

“The pen [education] is a good thing. It’s good when you learn how to read and how to write and how to use the pen in your life. . . . If you have a small mind, you can just remain in the village with your family and live an empty life. But if you go to school, school will change your mind and it will change all the bad things. You will have your mind to better things.” 34 year-old female, Twic County, South Sudan

As most people who follow development issues are well aware, educating women and girls is widely hailed as the single activity that most dramatically increases all other development goals. Among a host of other benefits, it reduces poverty, increases economic activity, improves nutrition and reduces conflict.

This message in its most generic form — education is good — seems to have been received loud and clear in many developing countries. But how to actualize it quickly becomes highly complex as it makes its way through the filters of local culture, custom, economics and gender roles.

A recent Internews report about women, education and information in South Sudan shows how careful and sensitive understanding of local context is critically important to avoid unintended consequences.

The golden dream

South Sudan, the world’s newest nation, has experienced conflict and dislocation at every level of society for decades. Along with this unrest has come a massive influx of international organizations, bringing new expectations and models of success into a traditional, agrarian culture. Women are starting to question their traditional roles and are seeking alternatives without a clear concept of where to begin.

In this mix, the idea of getting an education has become a golden dream, often loaded with unrealistic and vague expectations. Education, which women call “the pen,” offers not only an escape from the frustrations of their current lives, but also a seemingly inevitable path to a brighter future, new jobs, significant material wealth and a transformed existence. Most women hold this dream as an article of blind faith and have very little understanding of how to access these miraculous changes.

The stark reality

Women carry pots on their head along a dirt road
Young women attend to their daily chores in the United Nation’s camp in South Sudan where 21,000 displaced people have lived since Dec 2013. Photo credit: Jean Luc Dushime/Internews

The Internews study, which ran 30 focus groups and performed 35 individual interviews in five states in South Sudan, found women’s roles to be quite similar across the country. More than 80% of women live in rural areas and are farmers. Their lives progress predictably from childhood to adolescence to marriage and motherhood. Women, in charge of the domestic life of the family, are expected to produce as many children as possible and perform the very time-consuming chores of the rural home, which include collecting water and increasingly scarce firewood for cooking. Domestic violence is common and widely sanctioned; 80% of men and women believe that men have the right to abuse their wives physically.

Typically, the highlight of a woman’s life is the moment when she is sent to the cattle camp upon arrival of her first menstrual cycle. She is now a candidate for marriage.

One young woman described the cattle camp experience. “Someone might admire her there, and if they admire her that person can marry her. . . . If someone has cows and marries the girl, and she can also try to cultivate, to fetch water — those are the things a wife can do when she is home.”

A herd of cattle walk across a plain
A herd of cattle on its way to market. Wau, Upper Nile state, August 2014. Photo credit: Jean Luc Dushim/Internews

The dowry economy

The golden dream of the pen has begun to disrupt this very traditional culture, mixing in unanticipated ways with the existing economic function of women represented by the dowry economy. In South Sudan, the dowry is paid to the girl’s family. Girls, in this context, are a hugely important part of the local economy and a source of wealth for their parents. This dowry generally take the form of a certain number of cows that are all too-often stolen in very violent raids.

As the study revealed, the new dream of education has become entwined with the traditional dream of domestic value in ways that are challenging to distinguish. Women discussed the pen and the dowry as paired concepts with an unexpected twist. Instead of an education leading to freedom and autonomy, education becomes a way to raise a woman’s value within the dowry economy.

As one women explained, “Education is very important for your daughter, because if a girl becomes educated she can bring more dowry than an uneducated girl. You should not educate only boys; you should educate girls also because educated girls are equal to boys.”

This perspective gets complicated quickly.

South Sudan has experienced rapid inflation in dowry prices — from between 50 to 200 cows per girl. One driver is education — parents will demand that education fees be taken into consideration during marriage negotiations. The bridegroom’s family is likely to offer a higher dowry because an educated girl is more likely to bring additional income to the family.

At the same time, the ongoing conflict in the country and the reduction of resources has encouraged families to marry their daughters earlier. 36% of girls in South Sudan now marry before the age of 18.

In this context, the calculations begin. How long should a girl stay in school to achieve the ultimate increase in dowry value before she gets too old and her value begins to drop again? At what point is it worth it to take a girl out of school? 20 cows? 40 cows? 60 cows?

Another consideration is the fear that if girls stay in school too long, they will become “spoiled.”

As one woman said, “My husband brought so many cows that my parents were happy and they were saying, ‘If we had allowed her to be educated more, then she would have been spoiled and wouldn’t have brought these cows to us.’ They were like, ‘This is what we wanted. She is now married with the cows we wanted her to be married with.’”

This raises a question: Are those who advocate for girls’ education breaking down existing unequal roles and responsibilities, or simply reinforcing the current system?

Information equality vs. information distribution

The Internews study was undertaken to understand the best way to support information distribution and access for women in South Sudan. The study quickly found that the concept of information is a meaningless idea for South Sudanese women unless it is linked to the dream of “the pen,” and the topic quickly shifted to understanding “educational information.”

Much of the focus in South Sudan has been on establishing functioning information distribution platforms, largely via radio in the rural areas. As the study shows, information distribution is necessary, but not sufficient. If the right message (education is good) is distributed without a way to help women and girls act on it, it can backfire. Even though women throughout the country believe deeply in the power of education, most do not have a clear sense of what an education actually means or how to get one.

The numbers back up this concern. On average, there are 7 girls for every 10 boys in primary school. By secondary school, this number drops to 5 in 10.

The way forward

If the goal is to help women in South Sudan achieve greater equality, the information strategy needs to shift from a distribution model toward coupling valuable, educational information with concrete frameworks for transforming classroom attainment into social change. This means developing substantive educational programming supported by clear expectation setting. This programming should be based on well-understood educational needs and the content should be linked to specific applications and outcomes relevant for women in South Sudan. Goals should be realistic and practical, such as forming learning/listening groups for women interested in going into business together.

It is also important to de-stigmatize women who work outside the home. Educational programming can be tied to positive stories about women small business owners and shop keepers, teaching basic literacy, simple accounting practices and training for working with local government.

Finally, any approach to information equality must be accompanied by the understanding that women in South Sudan live with extreme time poverty. Any advances that can be delivered to help streamline their daily chores will be critical to the success of practical and effective educational programming.

Women in South Sudan understand that education is a game changer. Now it is time to help make their golden dream into an achievable reality.

Internews has been working in South Sudan since 2006. As this newly independent nation develops new information needs, Internews will continue to help support local radio stations to meet the demands of their local communities.

This work is funded by USAID.

Banner photo: Women participate in a community cholera awareness event, Lul, Upper Nile, South Sudan. August 2014 Photo credit: Jean Luc Dushime/Internews

(This story originally ran in Medium.)