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  • War and Women in the Sudan:Role Change and Adjustment to New Responsibilities
  • Julia A. Duany and Wal Duany

"Hunger is killing us and the relief is killing people too. This free food is too little to keep us alive, and it is robbing us of our way of life."

Buoth nak Naath


Sudanese women argue that they have become a lifeline for family survival. Men, on the other hand, claim that providing for the family is primarily their duty, while women are merely their helpers. The reality is that in South Sudan women head two out of five households. Every family has lost at least one member, usually a husband or older brother. This has left a vacuum in terms of family support, and many Sudanese women have acquired a new role in becoming sole provider for their household.1

In recent years, the number of ethnic conflicts in Sudan has increased considerably. One effect of these conflicts has been a steadily growing need for food aid. Local production has not been possible because of instability in the region. Many Sudanese communities have been uprooted from their villages and displaced. Relief aid has become the only way many people can get food, yet the system has also created miserable human conditions. One important fact stands out, however: if men were traditionally considered the sole providers for family, currently, women's leadership has become an important alternative for family survival. [End Page 63] Women exercise "mutual assistance" to change household relations through exercise of their gender-based networks and access to kinship connections through lines of intermarriages. As Julia Delaney has written elsewhere, "When women talk, they discuss issues that concern people's lives, and their communities. They talk about sickness, conflicts to be resolved, bad harvests, not enough rain, infertility, etc. The gift of an African woman has been to engage in dialogue and stand for truth, saying things others do not want to hear, and her ability to go out and do things for the welfare of her family."2

Although much knowledge has been gathered about African women over the last several decades, many gaps remain, with a number of communities still inadequately or incompletely studied. Misrepresentation and lack of appropriate data have hampered research on the position of rural African women. Only if the data become more complete can we understand the practical realities experienced by African women that may suggest ways to improve African societies.3 Still, research on the position of African women has helped us understand how social and cultural norms limit women's access to participation in decision-making. It is through African women that we may accurately evaluate women's contributions to the household and the economy at large.

This study examines Sudanese women's perceptions of how land or cattle ownership, family relations, household social structures, and other social realities may stimulate women's opportunities to obtain better resources in the Sudan. Obtaining information from women themselves is essential for understanding issues affecting the formulation of policies and programs relevant to the needs of African women. Such an understanding can facilitate their participation in both the formal and informal sectors, thereby improving women's situation and increasing their contribution to the development, transformation, and rebuilding of their societies. While the situation of women in other societies differs in some respects, many of the issues addressed by Sudanese women are also relevant to other African societies. We have therefore interviewed women about their lives in order to present southern Sudanese women's own opinions of how social realities affect their positions as women, as well as to elucidate the challenges they face as they take on new roles as decision-makers and providers for their families. [End Page 64]

In Sudan, as in many African societies, women typically engage in farming, dairy production, domestic duties, and income-earning activities. Although African women often work long hours, they typically do not have resources sufficient to enable them to provide for their families.4 Because husbands and wives cooperate indirectly, their different activities may even suggest to outsiders that they are competing for resources. This misconception has often been a problem for...