A letter from Christi Boyd in the Congo
"We don't want our daughters to be hostages of wealth."
Madam Achol Majok Kur pronounces the words slowly and expressively. She emphasizes thereby her aversion of widespread cultural attitudes and practices that lead to forced marriages and gender-based violence.
"Because of the high dowry, I'd be given to the man that I don't like. If a man offers 200 cows, and the man I love has 50 heads of cattle, I will be forced by my parents to go to the one with 200 cattle, because that is what they want. I am counted by them in terms of wealth."
Achol chairs the Women's Desk of the South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church (SSPEC), a new denomination and offshoot from its Sudanese namesake in the North. SSPEC is made up of Presbyterians whose families hail from the southern states but had earlier migrated to northern Khartoum. There they became members of the church that had developed from the historical Egypt-Sudan mission of the Presbyterian Church of North America, SPEC (Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church). Along with other Christians from African descent, however, their opportunity to thrive as a minority religious group in a predominantly Arab Muslim context had become increasingly restricted. When South Sudan gained autonomy from Sudan in 2011, many of these Presbyterians decided to return to their ancestral land, with a fervent desire to help rebuild society in a new nation, where the church would have the latitude to effectively engage in that transformative process.
"If you have a girl, your future is secured. Even if you don't have cattle this year, you know that in 10 years’ time you will, because you have this girl. So this girl is considered as an asset.”
Traditionally parents in South Sudan marry off their daughters at a very young age as child brides to often much older men. Achol explains that in most cases these forced marriages result in unhealthy, loveless relationships in which women are considered the rightful property of their husbands. They end up suffering emotional and physical abuse from the hands of their spouses while feeling abandoned by their parents. Achol continues:
"This is an issue we need to take on as SSPEC women. First it needs to be addressed at the family level. If situations like that are happening around us, we have to reach out as a church and as members of the local community. Changing human beings is a process. We need to bring people to understand that education is the key. The girl will then start taking decisions for herself. There is no need for anyone to decide on her behalf. Feeling empowered by her education, she will not let herself be forced again, but [she will] carry on taking her own decisions. Instead of being married off in fifth grade or so, she can insist on going to secondary school, reasoning that later on she will be a mother who knows how to take care of her child. She would even know how to give her child medicines and be able to read the vaccination card. This is why education is the key, and girls have to make that choice for themselves."
At the time of my visit with Achol last November most returnees had yet to find a place to resettle. Households were swamped as they absorbed the influx of relatives from the North. It would be a matter of time and faith to organize so everyone would have a place to call home. Much like its constituents, SSPEC also had no established headquarters from which to reconnect with its membership and organize as a church to reach out into society. As SSPEC Women's Leader Achol told me, if only SSPEC had a Church Center, she would bring together women's groups from different provinces to raise awareness about girls' education as a means to counter gender-based violence and train among them mentors to take that message back to their own communities. Eventually the Church would have provincial offices to organize its activities in the periphery.
Serving as tentmakers for the time being, the passion of SSPEC's leadership was captivating and their vision and capacity inspiring. Little did I know then that barely a month after this conversation South Sudan would spiral down into brutal violence. Allegedly set off by the ambitions of political foes, and fueled by incited sentiments that undermine already fragile relations between various people groups, the bloodshed reportedly cost the lives of over 10,000 people. The events accentuate the already heightened need for trauma healing as prerequisite for reconciliation and sustainable peace, and a paramount priority for church- and nation-building efforts.
Our partners in South Sudan ask for you to remember them in your prayers. Particularly in times of hardship, tokens of solidarity rekindle the spirit and strengthen relationships across geographical divides. While accompanying our partners on behalf of women and children, I want to make you feel part of the experience through words and images. The costs to be with our partners in their own context, be it South Sudan, Congo, Rwanda, Niger or Madagascar, need to be covered by our missionary sending and support. Jeff and I are therefore grateful for all of you who help us do just that, but we need many more Presbyterians on our team to fully cover our basis. Please join the collective effort by making a regular contribution toward our support account (see below). In return, we will continue to serve as your eyes and ears, your hands and your voice through the PC(USA). Together, we can serve better in God's Mission!
The 2014 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 138
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