The Girl for 500 Cows: The Commodification of girls in South Sudan
By Adhieu Majok
A story of a tall, beautiful girl from Yirol in the former Lakes State of South Sudan, has gone viral within the South Sudanese community on social media, and should undoubtedly reach across the continent.
The disturbing ‘competition’ for 17-year-old Aluet Ngong Deng’s hand in marriage by men in their 40’s is fierce; the highest bid is currently standing at 500 heads of cattle and three vehicles, and the competing bid stands at 350 cows. Although Aluet comes from a humble background, high dowry demands are not unusual for a girl who looks like her – tall, with smooth dark skin, which is considered to be the standard of beauty in some South Sudanese communities.
Aluet is from the Dinka tribe, a community for whom cattle carry significant economic and cultural importance. In Dinka culture, a man is required to pay dowry in both cattle and other financial contributions to a woman’s family before he can take her on as his wife. It’s also completely normal for him to ‘compete’ for a woman against her other suitors. The determining criteria for the successful suitor are a combination of the man’s personal background, his ability to take care of his potential bride financially, and how many cows he has offered for the marriage.
Historically, dowry has been utilised in Dinka culture as a social exchange; it was seen as a token of appreciation to the parents for raising a girl until womanhood. The dowry contributions don’t only come from the groom himself; his friends and relatives contribute their own share. But due to high inflation, poverty, and cyclical conflicts within South Sudan, dowry demands have soared. As it stands in South Sudan, a cow may cost US$200 to $400 (depending on inflation), an expensive endeavour for men of marrying age. Girls and women are therefore seen as a source of wealth for families. One or two generations ago, dowries were far more modest. But today, in the Bahr el Ghazal region where child marriage is rampant, standard dowry payments may be up to 200 cows – between US$40,000 and $80,000.
The news of Aluet’s marriage has been met with mixed views, with some women, in support of patriarchal customs, saying they would support their husband in taking on Aluet as a wife, while others have criticised the tainted custom. Criticism of Aluet’s case is often been met with justifications of cultural precedence, and warnings of the dangers of Western influence on South Sudanese women. Aluet is also 17 and should be protected from marriage by the South Sudan Child Act of 2008, which states that anyone under the age of 18, is a child and should therefore not be allowed to be married. South Sudan has the second highest rate of child marriage in East Africa (48%), just behind Ethiopia at 49%.
Connections between dowry and conflict
Aluet’s case presents a damaging precedence in South Sudan. High dowry fuel communal conflicts and cattle raids are common in rural areas of the country. Cattle are both central to the lives of the Dinka communities and often the primary source of conflict. High dowries mean lower earning men earning what would normally be a decent income, cannot marry. Young Dinka women who would traditionally be married off to other young men, are promised to much older and more affluent men who already have several other wives. According to the World Bank’s publication, The Other Half of Gender: Men’s Issues in Development, “In much of Sub-Saharan Africa, bride price is commonplace, and thus marriage and family formation are directly tied to having income or property.” Patriarchal societies place men as the head of their households, but if a man cannot marry, his masculinity is challenged, and he is seen as inferior to his married agemates.
Dowry has been abused; it has commoditised women and been used as a wealth generator for many South Sudanese families. High dowry demands are one of the driving forces behind child marriage and inter-communal conflicts. Aluet’s story presents the myriad of issues gripping Africa’s newest state; high dowry, child marriage, corruption and ongoing conflict. Though Aluet’s story is making the headlines today, there are still many child marriages taking place, but the number of cows offered is often the media’s primary interest, not the girl’s well being. As a South Sudanese woman, I want to reiterate that I am a being, and not an asset to be eagerly trade-off as a commodity.
Sieta Adhieu Majok is a British-Dutch South Sudanese microbiologist, writer, campaigner and political analyst. Adhieu is passionate about peacebuilding and women.
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