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Age and Gender Dynamics of Returnee Girls and Boys

The case of South Sudan advances the argument that gendered and generational differences regarding reintegration needs and aspirations, as well as the very desirability of return, warrant more focused consideration than has typically been the case among governmental and international entities working with refugees and other forced migrants. The IOM estimates that less than 6 % of those who returned to South Sudan after 2005 were over the age of 60 years, whereas around 75 % were under 18. Still, the proportion of those under 18 in the whole country was 51 %, indicating that returnees were considerably younger than the overall population (IOM 2012).

“Long years in exile, which often comprised much or all of their childhoods, had instilled in them social values—including views on gender— that often differed from those of their South Sudan-born elders” (Ensor 2013, 19). South Sudanese anthropologist Jok Madut Jok (2007) also drew attention to gender differentials, noting that “the war in Sudan ... affected women in more and different ways than men, but beyond the usual ways in which such state-sponsored violence affects women and children—through rape, abduction, sexual slavery, and labor exploitation” (206).

Patriarchal attitudes prevalent in South Sudan confer on females of all ages a lower status in society. Young women’s contribution to the war effort was consequently undervalued while the high levels of gender and sexual violence to which they are often subjected, both during the conflict and in times of peace, continued to be either dismissed or legitimized (Ensor 2014, 18). Their subordinated position was compounded by their more limited venues for economic empowerment, because patriarchal restrictions on female interactions with men to whom they are not related often impeded the participation of girls and women in incomegenerating activities (IRI 2003).

A study conducted by the New Sudan Centre for Statistics and Evaluation in association with UNICEF reported that the country suffered from the lowest ratio of female-to-male school enrollment in the world, with girls having a much greater probability of dying during pregnancy or childbirth (1 in 9) than of completing primary school (1 in 100)

(NSCSE and UNICEF 2004). The reasons why enrollment and retention rates for girls remained so low are multiple and interrelated. Girls are traditionally responsible for household chores and the care of younger siblings. Parents often favor sons when school fees and other costs preclude them from sending all their children to school. Furthermore, in a context where few female teachers existed to serve as mentors and role models, parents expressed concern about sending girls to schools that were dominated by boys and male teachers, and they worried that their daughters’ safety might be compromised or that their value as brides would be diminished.

In effect, a combination of tradition and absence of other alternatives compelled many families to marry off their daughters at a young age, seeking to receive a dowry payment. At the same time, male youth were placed under severe pressure to meet escalating dowry costs, as low levels of educational accomplishment and limited employment opportunities significantly diminished available avenues for economic advancement. Other recent studies confirm the findings that high dowries are related to an increasing prevalence of domestic violence and infidelity committed by husbands; they often felt that the high price they must pay for their wives justified their abusive behavior (Sommers and Schwartz 2011).

In addition to domestic abuse, early marriages are known to have other harmful consequences for girls, including health problems and the denial of education (Harvey and Rogers-Witte 2007, 11). This situation was particularly problematic for the thousands of young South Sudanese females who grew up in other countries and were exposed to less restricted views on a woman’s position in society. Many older girls and young women, in particular, lamented the loss of the greater opportunities available to them in exile, in contrast to what they perceived as the more constraining traditional social mores of conservative South Sudan. “Better-educated and more self-assured than their local counterparts, returnee girls’ progressive views on social issues [were] often at odds with traditionally patriarchal mores” (Ensor 2013, 19).

Returnee children and youth of both genders struggled to (re)integrate into resource-poor rural lifestyles to which they were often unaccustomed. Younger children suffered the impact of a much more restricted diet and more limited access to healthcare than was the case when their families were based in internationally managed camps and settlements abroad or in Khartoum. Insufficient educational and vocational training opportunities, lack of sports and entertainment facilities, and isolation created by language barriers and inadequate infrastructure and transportation combined to create a sense of alienation among some returning youngsters. Some youth would have preferred to remain in the diaspora, while others longed for resettlement to a Western country. Others chose to go back to Kenya and Uganda to finish their education in refugee camps, perceiving their opportunities to be greater there. In some cases, this estrangement was so acute that older children reportedly ran away from their families. Anecdotal evidence suggests that some went back to cities (e.g., Khartoum), where they were believed to be living as street children.

In urban areas, the main sources of employment available to returnee females included cleaning and cooking at restaurants and hotels, carrying water on construction sites, and engaging in various forms of petty trade and small businesses. For unskilled returnee males, collecting firewood, breaking stones, brickmaking, digging latrines, and similar forms of casual labor were among the main available occupations. In addition, according to Ensor:

Job allocation, however, commonly [reflected] ethnic affiliation and often [relied] on kin networks, placing uprooted returnees at a clear disadvantage. Furthermore, jobs [seldom were] reliable sources of income, including for those working for the government, as salary payment remained erratic after independence. (2013, 42)

Returnees with higher education levels and good English skills, typically acquired abroad, were occasionally able to find jobs with i nternational organizations or foreign companies and, more rarely, with the Government.

The difficulties inherent in finding paid employment in the face of rising expectations and unfavorable socioeconomic conditions were at the core of practices of continuing mobility among young returnees. Some boys and male youth attempted to improve their situation by engaging in cattle raiding or joining militia groups. The “chronic lack of livelihoods and employment opportunities for youth was highlighted by many ... as having a much more direct potential for creating or exacerbating tensions than the lack of basic services” (Bennett et al. 2010, 86).

Furthermore, the strained relationship between South Sudanese youth and their new government emerged as a common theme in conversations with study participants, with disappointment and frustration over government responses to youths’ needs and the marginalization of their voices in government policy being consistently reported by resident and returnee youths alike. Interviews with Government officials also revealed conflicting views of its capacity to satisfy youth expectations. Overall, the particular reintegration needs of the young and mostly urbanized segment of the returnee population went largely unrecognized and unaddressed, leaving them vulnerable to revictimization and further disenfranchisement. The Government’s inability—if not disinclination—to satisfy the needs of their huge youth constituency exacerbated tense relations (Sommers and Schwartz 2011), contributing to the escalation of the renewed violence.

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