Empowering Women in South Sudan

By Joyce Maker, Head Writer/Lead Character of Sawa Shabab and Brett Pierce, Co-Executive Producer of Sawa Shabab

We want to introduce you to Rose. Rose is one of the lead characters on Sawa Shabab (Together Youth), a peacebuilding radio series set in a fictional city in South Sudan designed to mend relations between and among ethnic groups, teach youth resilience in the face of conflict, and instill the importance of gender equality and women’s rights within everyone.

So how does a radio series achieve this objective? Sawa Shabab uses a combination of dramatic storylines and strong leading characters: memorable men and women with whom the audience can emotionally identity.

Sawa Shabab revolves around youth who are overly ambitious and others who are unruly, facing different yet common challenges along the way. There is Black Rider, a ladies man who loves to show off on his black motorbike. Opposite him is Taban, who lives with his mother and little sister and has to provide in the absence of their father. Winnie is the girl from America who is having a hard time adjusting in her home country, while Rose, who lives under the strict rules of her parents, is constantly finding ways around many roadblocks to pursue her dream of becoming an actress. A controversial character is a lady called Chocho. She is bold, outspoken and competitive on the outside – determined to build a music career – while on the inside, she has major insecurities which she hides from the world. Finally, on the outskirts of town, there is Nura, who is in an abusive relationship but remains for the sake of her children. She suffers in silence until she hears the voice of another woman over the radio and that is when her life begins to transform.

After three years of research on Sawa Shabab, we discovered that it was the female characters who make the most impact. One reason for this is because women face significantly larger obstacles to key gender equity goals than men, and their challenges -- as well as the characters facing them -- are familiar to listeners. In other words, it’s through these radio dramas that listeners can -- sometimes for the first time -- imagine themselves overcoming these obstacles in a very real and compelling way.

Which brings us back to Rose, one of our four leading women. We want to bring this theory of change outlined above to life by sharing a few snippets of her tale.

Rose begins the first season of Sawa Shabab in her final year of high school.

She has a dream to become an actress, and a local talent show can take her on a path to money and recognition. Rose is preparing a monologue about her dreams as her audition piece, and this is her ticket to her future. Each night, after her chores and homework, she stays up late and works on her monologue.

But Rose’s parents can’t know about this – according to them, her dreams are silly, acting is stupid and writing is a waste of time. Besides, she has already been promised to a man three times her age; what good is dreaming, acting and writing in the face of imminent marriage.

(Home, Morning)

Margret (Rose’s mother): Why you hiding from me?

Rose: It is not hiding. I am writing for school. 

Margret: Today . . . why do you shame yourself? This thing should be done yesterday. 

Rose: I was doing my writing yesterday . . . mama writing never ends . . . you can make it better by doing and doing again like cooking.  

Margret: Okay but chores first then writing second. You are going to be a wife not a writer.

Rose: Who is this man?  

Margret: The man you are marrying is from our tribe and he is very responsible—with life experience. He even can take care of fifteen women. 

Rose: (pauses, deep breath) Mama I am going to finish my education first then after that I will be a wife. 

Margret: Ah are you crazy?! Huuuh today you will not go to school instead you will stay home and cook and clean… all day . . . being a wife comes first. 

How does Rose play it? She stays home that day, but in the days that follow, she doubles down on her audition prep. Now, the topic has changed. Her dreams are no longer driving her. Instead, it’s the prospect of an imminent marriage.

Audition day arrives. Her friends are there. Rose steps out onto the stage. And this is the monologue that she delivers.

(School Public Space. Several students in the audience, along with adult contest judges. Rose is introduced, she walks out on the platform.)

Rose: She is in love—but she will not say with who—because they have no future together

Her father has already determined her fate within months she’s going to marry another 

She has cried tears of pain because she is trying to hold on to her dreams,

but they are slipping through her fingertips with each thought of marrying this other. . . man. . . whose triple times her age.

She feels bullied, pushed and forced.

Her worth is determined by the number of cows a man is willing to pay to marry her.  

She wants to be independent and have choices -- but that is but a dream.

She is amazing! . . . But the idea of marriage makes her feel like a mere shadow of amazing.

She is taught marriage is her life goal. Sure she is in school but in the end she must get married!

Girls like me live like strangers in our homes. We spend our lives trying to balance between what our family wants and what we need.

Girls, who, like me, have so much dreams that their parents, disapprove of.  Girls like me eventually get married to men their parents approved of.

The marriage system is made to manipulate girls like me.

This is my life. 

Rose’s monologue spurs change in one of Sawa Shabab’s other leading female characters: Nura. Nura is an illiterate mother of four who must, on top of cooking, cleaning and raising four children, put food on the table at night to feed her hungry husband, who neglects to give her enough money to buy the food. Instead, that money goes to other women and nights out. Nura knows only this life, this unfairness, this treatment. This is her norm. But one day, the radio is left on (Nura is forbidden to turn on the radio and listen herself), and she hears a woman talking about things that she has never heard before: ideas about women and their rights to an education and to learn how to read. This radio show – this woman’s voice -- opens the door to the concept of doubt: doubt about her existence and her norm, creating confusion around her marriage and husband.

Ah, ah what’s wrong that I did in this life? Why I am facing all this, no respect, little love,

and sometimes I feel no love, why I am a person who stays all the time in the kitchen,

all time bringing water from borehole, only me to watch the children.

Are these children mine only? Why, why my husband!?!! !…

I just wanna know what’s wrong that I did, to stay in this situation…

Life is not fear to me and some women in my country, if not all of them..

No no, I feel something, but there is nothing wrong that I did…

It is them, yes men in my country; they are the ones making our life miserable…

My husband is making things not that as I love…

But I love him; I love my husband, over all this!

Should this love make me quiet?

Should this love only take me where he wants?

No, But love, yes, no Love

I’ll continue loving him, but I’ll let him understand, how important I am as him

Who was that voice on the radio that inspired Nura to question her norm? None other than Rose.

Has Sawa Shabab succeeded in the goal of instilling pride and dignity in being a woman? Impact research from three seasons reports back a resounding yes. Baseline to endline, our research shows a statistically significant increase in female listeners perceptions of their capacity to participate in society. Our data also shows a 21% jump in the percentage of South Sudanese female listeners who believe that being educated is an important quality for women.

But this series goes beyond statistics. Head writer, lead actress, South Sudanese citizen and co-author of this piece, Joyce Maker, as an on-the-ground observer of the impact of Sawa Shabab, concludes as follows:

At such a time when most South Sudanese live in despair, the show becomes a tiny spark of the fireworks of hope that is yet to come. Families and people from different backgrounds gather around the radio in wait of subsequent episodes, week after week. This is a uniting factor for the listeners. This is the power of entertainment! This gets conversations going among people of different age groups, ethnic backgrounds and social statuses.

In the context of South Sudan and most developing countries, usually, when people talk of gender, the immediate response is to think that we are referring to women. In essence, we should also begin to think about the boy child and how we can groom him to be a contributor of female empowerment as they transition into men. Men are seen to be superior and having more rights over women, making women victims of structural and cultural violence. The truth however is, these men have sisters, daughters and mothers who they would not want to be treated as they may be treating their wives and other women.

In a patriarchal society, having women do things their way is almost taboo. And so we must, as show creators, highlight their struggles and showcase different ways in which these women are rising above these struggles to emerge as ‘sheroes’ in a male-dominated society.  It might take a whole generation for these perceptions to change, but that is no reason to be reluctant. Hopefully, we can help to bring about change, by stopping one bad practice at a time.

In Wau (Western Bahr el Ghazal State), I had the privilege of visiting several girls’ schools, and I felt like I had been awarded some super powers. Why? I opened my mouth to speak at a function and they recognized my voice from the radio. I could hear whispers of, “That’s Winnie. Is she the one? It’s Winnie from Sawa Shabab.” I sat in retrospect and wondered to myself, “If these girls think so highly of a fictional character, how great and invaluable would it be to meet a real-life role model of that character?”

All we can say is Sawa Shabab has changed lives. It has provided people with solutions to day-to-day problems. It has ignited flames of ambition and been an overall exhilarating source of entertainment across South Sudan.

Kelly HoyeComment