Accessibility links

Sudanese Women Seeking Divorce Find Themselves in Prison

  • Raymond Thibodeaux

Most of the two dozen women in Rumbek's prison are there for committing adultery, often not for love, but to provoke their husbands to divorce them. The region's customary laws make it virtually impossible for women to file for divorce, but that could change. Southern Sudan, at peace after 21 years of civil war with the north, is drafting a new constitution that challenges traditional rules about marriage and divorce.

Even from her prison room, which she shares with 12 other women, Deng Maker is defiant as she admits committing adultery. She wanted to shame her husband into repaying her dowry and granting her a divorce.

Mrs. Maker says that her husband, a regional chief who married her as his second wife, beats her and refuses to pay for food for her and her six children.

She says through an interpreter that she was not really in love with that man [nor] her husband. The problem is that the mistreatment which has been made by her husband is what annoyed her to go and commit adultery with the other man. She is actually refusing that man to remain with her as her husband. That is why she made that mistake to annoy him to leave her.

Commander Matthew Jiet Abol, the director of prisons for much of south Sudan, says many of the women in southern Sudan have been influenced by Western values.

The concept of prison is foreign to their Dinka culture, in which village elders often are called to settle disputes, he says.

Adultery also is foreign to Dinka culture of Sudan, he says, adding that never has Rumbek's prison been so full of women jailed for adultery, eloping or other marital offenses.

"It is something new in our custom," he said. "Before that, adultery was very difficult to find because these things were prohibited by customary law. But now since the customs have intermingled and some foreign customs have come in and circulated during wartime, this made many women to loiter about. Plus, [there are] economic difficulties. These are the things that have made many women behave in such a way."

But under southern Sudan's customary laws, it is virtually impossible for women to divorce their husbands, even when the husbands are promiscuous or physically abusive. Usually the dowry given to the bride's father, in Mrs. Maker's case about 90 head of cattle, is distributed among relatives as gifts, or payments for past debts. To successfully divorce a husband, the wife must plead with often reluctant relatives to return the dowry, all of it. In many cases, some of the cattle have either been sold off or slaughtered.

But this could change. Southern Sudan, at peace after two decades of civil war, is drafting a new constitution and modern penal code. The proposed laws, drafted with oversight of the international community, are expected to enshrine the rights of women and children, who are largely ignored by the region's patriarchal customary laws.

Akur Ajuoi, a lawyer with UNICEF, the U.N. agency for children, is helping to draft the new constitution.

She says women in southern Sudan often joined rebel militias, and fought alongside the men. Others learned to manage their farms and herds without their husbands. Now, in peace time, the experience appears to have empowered them to assert their rights, she says.

"Despite the fact that southern Sudan or Sudan as a whole has been at war for close to 30 years, southern Sudan has opened up," she explained. "Women have become more aware of their own rights. Some of them have become a bit more empowered by the fact that they are the ones who have taken up more responsibilities. And since they become more aware of their rights, some of the women, one of the ways they want to express dissatisfaction with a marriage or want to express they want out of a marriage is through adultery."

Ms. Ajuoi, a Dinka who fled to Kenya and South Africa during Sudan's war, says many of the region's customary laws conflict with Westernized values of gender equality.

"Most personal law aspects, be it marriage, divorce and such, are handled strictly by customary practices," she explained. "We do not have any formal statutory legislation or any laws that actually cater for such aspects. But we are beginning to see changes. We are beginning to see at least an interim national constitution that recognizes that women have the right to actually choose their own partners and [start] a family. So, with a lot of effort from higher political level, changes can be felt at ground level or at a community level."

At night, Mrs. Maker and the other women sleep on straw mats on the cold cement floor of the prison. They eat one meal a day, usually a stew of corn or sorghum.

But for Mrs. Maker it is preferable to spending another night with her husband.