SOUTH SUDAN: South Sudan's Sole Female Traditional Chief Fights For Equality

Wednesday, February 15, 2012
Eastern Africa
S. Sudan
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
General Women, Peace and Security
Peace Processes

Magdalena Ehisa Tito, an elegant and extremely polite woman welcomed us into her home. The 52 year- old, the only traditional chief in the whole of South Sudan has become a role model for the women of Torit, Eastern Equatoria State. Chief Magdalena was born on November 25, 1959 in Torit and she went primary school at the age of 10 years. She started to work in 1977 as a veterinary assistant to the present Minister of Agriculture, Betty Ogwaro. At the age of 19, Tito got married, much later than most of her peers. At the time most girls were married off by the age of 12.

Her marriage was not one many people would relate to today. Magdalena was first abducted and the abduction led into a marriage as was the practice at that time. “In our tradition when a man likes a woman, she will steal her either on her way to school or while going to fetch firewood. Once this is done, the family of the girl is informed and the marriage is arranged,” Magdalena explained.

Even today early marriage remains a challenge for girls in post conflict South Sudan, preventing their enrolment, retention and completion of their education.

Magdalena had two sons but later divorced when her husband failed to pay bride price just one cattle to her family. The divorce was solely on basis of non-payment of dowry and Tito received her divorce papers in 1983.

Her desire to serve her community moved Chief Magdalena to join the police in 1992 where she graduated in 1996. Thereafter the police authorities sent her to train as a midwife. She said she was motivated to join the force because she wanted to contribute to keeping law and order in the South of Sudan. Though the training in the police college was tough, Magdalena was fit enough to carry out all the training schemes. It was during her time as at the police training that the Khartoum government of Sudan changed the education curriculum from English to Arabic.

Chief Magdalena says this move came together with a series of other policies that made life difficult for the people of Southern Sudan, including the children, who had to automatically convert to learning in a new language. Chief Magdalena took part in the struggle for South Sudanese independence. She narrates stories of how she worked alongside other members of the Southern Sudan liberation movement to smuggle children to East Africa countries where they could study in english in defiance of the ‘Arabisation' of South Sudanese people.

Her contribution led to Sudan Peoples liberation Movement (SPLM) to recognise her as a leader for her community. True to their promise, when time came to nominate a Traditional Chief in Torit, she was nominated with other men who she beat in elections held in 2004 to become the first female traditional Chief in South Sudan. This position not following a certain lineage would pause challenges to Magdalena as a woman leader. The Traditional Chiefdoms are male dominated and Magdalena wasn't sure she would be accepted. But many recognised her community service and in 2008, Magdalena was elected the Paramount Chief, leading 396 male chiefs in Eastern Equatoria State.

Chief Magdalena explained that culture and tradition is not favourable to women. “Traditionally, men and boys provide security for the animals (mostly cattle) while women perform domestic work such as providing food, cultivating, building houses and taking care of the children,” she says. “ Despite the huge responsibility the women have no say at home, including making a choice of a husband.”

Chief Magdalena says this has led to many failed marriages and most times men abandon their wives and take on several other women, leaving a huge burden for women in terms of raising children. Chief Magdalena notes that this abandonment has led to some women resorting to alcoholism. She also says many women suffer domestic violence where their husbands and in-laws beat them.

For instance a woman caught committing adultery is arrested and sent to prison and she notes that some men take advantage of this to accuse their wives falsely to earn them punishment by the Customary court.

War and changed gender roles

After the war, Chief Magdalena says, men returned and found the women had taken up some of their roles. “the men became lazy, most times they go out drinking and only return at night,” she narrated, “ Those men who are employed are not very different from the unemployed; most of them don't bring their salaries home for their families.”

The inability of men to take up their responsibilities has increased gender-based violence in the communities. Women in polygamous relationships suffer a lot of neglect from their spouse, and sometimes they seek for solace in the hands of other men, most times this results in arrest of such women.

Such cases are some of that make it to the chiefs in the area. Magdalena explains that most local Chiefs don't understand or they do but fail to question the underlining cause and continue to sentence the women to spend six months in prison, while the men are left free.

The trauma from the long civil conflict resulted has been reflected in high levels of in high alcohol consumption among both women and men, leading to couples abandoning household care unattended. Also men here can easily divorce their wives for irresponsible behaviour with support from the traditional institutions.

As a woman, Chief Magdalena counsels women to avoid drinking and be role models for their children and the youths. She believes the woman has the responsibility of keeping the family together and imparting good morals to the children and the community at large.

In the cases where men have abandoned their wives, Magdalena advocates for such women to be compensated instead of being left to suffer alone to take care of the children and the household needs. Even though the war is gone, most women of South Sudan still face the culture war that limits the engagement of women in public spaces as well the culture that doesn't question and address violence against women.

For many women they war trauma and continued marginalisation and violence make it difficult for recovery even in the new independent state. The absence of central government and state programs means most of delivery of justice is shouldered by traditional leaders who most of the time support men. In Torit there is no single counselling centre for women and others who require psychosocial support. Magdalena calls on the Government of the Republic of South Sudan to ensure trauma healing is a component of the post conflict reconstruction process and also ensure rule of law and justice is brought to the ordinary citizens especially women.