Civil Rights

SOLE empowers women to overcome cultural biases in South Sudan

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Land is one of South Sudan’s most precious—and most disputed—resources, but for most women, owning land is out of reach. Rose Nyadeng is one of four sisters, none of whom will be allowed to inherit property from their father. Widow Susan Naderu found herself homeless, pushed out of the home she cherished, after the death of her husband.

The conflict between legal systems and cultural norms can create tension that is difficult to overcome. Stories of displacement such as these are common throughout South Sudan, but for most women, a lack of knowledge and entrenched discrimination has kept them from changing their lives for the better. Students’ Organization for Liberty and Entrepreneurship (SOLE), under the leadership of executive director John Mustapha Kutiyote, is helping to lay the foundations for change to a system that continues to push women out of home ownership and onto the streets.

At Atlas Network’s 2019 Africa Think Tank Shark Tank, Kutiyote’s winning project shared the stories of women treated as dee mara saki, a phrase that embodies the cultural discrimination that keeps women from asserting their private property rights in South Sudan. With the support of Atlas Network, SOLE launched an awareness campaign that includes special workshops, community meetings, and radio outreach to help women understand their rights.

To date, 350 women have attended one of SOLE’s workshops in Yambio and Nzara, located in the country’s Western Equatoria state on the border of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Although South Sudan has adopted legal protections that explicitly recognize the rights of women, the laws are often ignored in this isolated area of the country. Rose and Susan are just two of the hundreds of women who have reached out to SOLE for help. Another attendee told the audience that she and her husband built a home on land they had purchased, but because they did not have children, her husband divorced her and left her homeless.

Under the direction of the SOLE team, each workshop helps participants understand South Sudan’s legal frameworks and the cultural biases against women. Since female entrepreneurship is rare, Kutiyote points out that it is also necessary to cover topics, such as business ownership, that illustrate the benefits of economic development. “We want to empower women to be self-reliant,” he says, “because many do not know that they have the right to own property and benefit from it.”

In bringing together women who have been affected by this harmful custom, Kutiyote has also sought to share positive growth that will inspire others. One workshop attendee told him, “I had never known that a woman could also own a piece of land, and I did not know that land is the source of wealth. After this training I will buy my own piece of land.” Mary Bakote, one of SOLE’s presenters, encouraged participants to “own a piece of land and use it for business,”—an option that has traditionally been a rarity for South Sudanese women. One enterprising woman told the audience that she had created a successful business that enabled her to send her children to school and feed her family. “I have 8 plots which I bought. I have put up some structures which are being used for renting. This training has confirmed to me that I was on the right track, but I have learned that obtaining a land lease is very important if I am to obtain loans from the bank.”

With the goal of training at least 1,500 women and engaging another 8,000 people through community outreach and media, Kutiyote is making plans for the project to continue through the first half of 2020. “With Atlas Network’s support,” he says, “we can together change the culture of dee mara saki into dee maa mara saki: she is not ‘just’ a woman, but a woman who has the right and ability to own private property for prosperity.”