Dowry and Division: Youth and State Building in South Sudan

Published: 
November 18, 2011
By: 
Marc Sommers and Stephanie Schwartz

Dowry inflation in South Sudan has stimulated insecurity and crime while intensifying threats against and control over female youth.

Summary

  • Most South Sudanese youth are undereducated and underemployed, and their priorities and perspectives are largely unknown. To address this critical knowledge gap, the authors conducted field research between April and May 2011 with youth, adults, and government and nongovernment officials in Juba and two South Sudanese states.
  • The increasing inability of male youth to meet rising dowry (bride price) demands was the main research finding. Unable to meet these demands, many male youth enlist in militias, join cattle raids, or seek wives from different ethnic groups or countries. 
  • Skyrocketing dowry demands have negatively and alarmingly affected female youth. They are routinely viewed as property that can generate family wealth.
  • Potent new postwar identities involving youth returning from Khartoum, refugee asylum countries, and those who never left South Sudan, are stimulating hostility and conflict.
  • Excess demand on government jobs, widespread reports of nepotism in government hiring practices, cultural restrictions against many kinds of work, and a general lack of entrepreneurial vision are fueling an exceptionally challenging youth employment situation.
  • Gang activities continue to thrive in some urban centers in South Sudan. They are reportedly dominated by youth with connections to government officials and by orphans.
  • While most undereducated youth highlighted dowry and marriage as their primary concerns, members of the elite youth minority emphasized vocational training and scholarships for higher education. 
  • While South Sudanese youth view their government as the primary source of education, jobs, and hope, the government of South Sudan does not appear poised to provide substantial support to vital youth priorities related to dowry, employment, education, and training.
  • The government of South Sudan and its international partners need to proactively address nonelite youth priorities. They must find ways to cap dowry demands, protect female youth, and support orphan youth, in addition to expanding quality education, job training, and English language training.

Listen to Marc Sommers discuss the report on VOA

About the Report

This is one in a series of United States Institute of Peace special reports on state building in the Republic of South Sudan following its creation on July 9, 2011. Each report analyzes an aspect of the state-building challenge and recommends priorities for the government of South Sudan. This report assesses the situation, priorities, and expectations of South Sudan's massive youth population in the context of building the new nation. Drawing from field interviews with youth, adults,and government and nongovernment officials in the capital, Juba, the mainly pastoralist oil-rich state of Unity, and the mainly agricultural state of Western Equatoria, this report found that strikingly conservative cultural norms are mixing with new social and economic changes to create a host of pressing challenges. The report highlights the impact of dramatic dowry (bride price) inflation on youth and finds that it is stimulating rises in insecurity, crime, and population growth while intensifying threats against and control over female youth.

About the Authors

Marc Sommers is a 2011−12 fellow with the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a visiting researcher with Boston University's African Studies Center. He is the author of Islands of Education: Schooling, Civil War and the Southern Sudanese (1983−2004), as well as Stuck: Rwandan Youth and the Struggle for Adulthood. Sommers is a former Jennings-Randolph Senior Fellow at the United States Institute of Peace. Stephanie Schwartz is a doctoral student in political science at Columbia University and the author of Youth in Post-Conflict Reconstruction: Agents of Change. She is a former senior program specialist at the United States Institute of Peace.
November 18, 2011
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