Empowering Women in South Sudan

March 05, 2012

Empowering Women in South Sudan

by Erin Polich

Women throughout the world face a stacked deck when it comes to health. They bear and raise children, perform taxing housework, and often take primary responsibility for cultivation and harvesting – all of which make them vulnerable to health complications. But they are usually not the primary decision makers in the household, even when it comes to their own health.

This power imbalance means that all too often, women delay care when sick. All too often, women acquiesce to husbands who insist that their wives give birth at home with an untrained relative, in accordance with traditions. All too often, it means women cannot say no to sex or insist on safe sex. All too often it means women are accused of sorcery or infertility if too long passes between childbirths. And all too often, it is women in developing countries who suffer most as a result.

In South Sudan, a country ravaged by five decades of civil war, women know this battle all too well. It’s fought on a daily basis when the average age for marriage is 16, and almost a third of women give birth by the age of 19. It’s fought when one in four women has an unmet need for contraception. It’s fought when 87 percent of women deliver in their homes — almost exclusively without a skilled birth attendant. It’s fought when 80 percent of women polled declare it justifiable for a man to beat his wife in certain circumstances. (1)

Moving toward a more gender equitable society is a gradual process. It involves education, political and social will, and requires participation from both men and women. And in the end, with the right determination and coordination, women worldwide slowly gain access to more resources, make their own choices, and have more power in society.

Recognizing these factors, the USAID-funded Sudan Health Transformation Project, phase two, (SHTP II) focuses its high-impact services primarily on improving women’s health. South Sudan remains a patriarchal society, where polygamy and gender-based violence are common, and the predominant role of women is viewed to be repopulating the population decimated by war (a task which they’re answering, with the average woman giving birth seven times in her life).

SHTP II targets women not only by increasing the availability of health services, but also by increasing demand for services through education and community mobilization. SHTP II forms women’s and mother’s support groups, engages women in leadership roles in the Village Health Committees, and targets education on topics like family planning and HIV awareness at both men and women.

Through these empowerment efforts, as well as the combined efforts of SHTP II and the Ministry of Health, in the past year, SHTP II increased first antenatal care visits by 38 percent, and fourth antenatal visits by 75 percent in its 14 supported counties. Second doses of intermittent preventive therapy — which protect pregnant women against malaria and its complications — increased 38 percent. Visits for family planning counseling, a topic that in 2006, only 20 percent of women reported having heard of, more than tripled.

Slowly, the dual effect of increased access to services and increased community participation will serve not only to improve women’s health but also as conduits to an overall movement towards greater women’s empowerment. SHTP II is proud to be a small part of this transformation and congratulates the women of South Sudan on their strength and vitality.

(1) 2010 Sudan Household Health Survey (SHHS)