How a UN research trip to South Sudan led to some startling personal discoveries
SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 7 | BY MARY T. AN
I’ve been thinking a lot about stories we hear. And, more importantly, the stories we don’t hear.
A few years ago, I found myself in South Sudan on the border near Uganda traveling from village to village to see how women were faring after decades of civil war. I listened as groups of women told me about what made their lives difficult, the kinds of violence they experienced, and how things could be better. I was doing research for a United Nations Agency about peace and security, and looking for war trauma, rape, and the types of problems caused by the proliferation of weapons still visible everywhere. These things were mentioned, but not much. Instead, nearly every woman spoke of a kind of violence in their lives that I was not expecting: “My husband beats me.”
George Orwell once wrote, “History is written by the winners.” History is the past tense of stories. And our storytellers are rarely poor, rural, or female.
Almost all of the seventy women I spoke with said they were victims of domestic violence. Stories flowed with sadness and anger, and sometimes with passion and urgency. There was even laughter—the dark kind. One woman, Ikabu, ran away by foot to Kenya and stayed there over a decade to escape her husband’s daily violence. She returned home only after hearing that he had passed away. Many said that their husbands were former militia who now couldn’t find jobs and were bored, depressed, and violent. Several explained that their husbands paid a high bride price for them and felt justified in treating them harshly. The following month, I typed up my report’s first and most important key finding: “Domestic abuse is rampant throughout the state,” described the contributing factors, and gave recommendations about what could be done to help. I knew even while writing this report that little would happen to address this problem. The agency and their international donors were expecting to hear about violence related to conflict and war—this was what they wanted to fund, even though the reality did not fit their expectation.
George Orwell once wrote, “History is written by the winners.” History is the past tense of stories. And our storytellers are rarely poor, rural, or female. The women I met in South Sudan are the most vulnerable members of their community, and living in one of the most impoverished countries in the world. As a result, they are silent. When they do appear, in the rare news headline or in a relief organization ad, their stories are told for and about them. Even with the best intentions, their hardships and desires are aggregated, spun, and put on display. The result is a shallow understanding of what is needed to make things better.
I remember, back in the 3rd grade, getting into a misunderstanding with a girl in class. My teacher dismissed the situation without hearing either side of the story. I was deeply frustrated because I wanted to give my account of what happened, but I was not given the chance. As an adult, I have sometimes met strangers who make quick assumptions about me based on my gender, race, or age. When they’re wrong, I’m indignant. Even when they’re right, I’m still pretty annoyed. Their assumptions have nothing to do with me, my experiences, or my journey.
I wonder what would happen if the women in South Sudan could share their own stories, both within their communities and beyond? I imagine their stories could help others understand the pain of the abuse they have endured. Their stories could hold community leaders accountable and call attention to bad behavior. Their stories could bring together other silent victims and attract empathy and support for their situation.
There is injustice in being spoken for—especially when you have a story to tell. Conversely, there is great justice in being able to speak and be understood. I think of powerful examples of what happens when oppressed people are given the tools to tell and share their stories. Rigoberta Menchú was encouraged to narrate a book that put the rights of Guatemala’s indigenous people on the world’s stage. Malala Yousafzai was asked to write a schoolgirl blog that struck fear into the heart of the Taliban and made girls’ education an absolute priority for world leaders. Their voices and stories moved the world and demanded change.
I helicoptered into South Sudan with straightforward expectations, and I left with a deep reminder that people must tell their own stories. These women told me again and again that they are unsafe in their domestic spaces. To be sure, some organizations are working to create safe asylum, to train local police to protect women’s rights, and to work with hospitals to identify domestic abuse. I met a UK-funded police advisor trying to train gender officers in police units. I met a young doctor looking for money to set up a specialized women’s section in Torit hospital. Funding is scarce, capacity is thin, and activities are costly and difficult to set up. The real problem, however, is that these steps are merely bandages applied after the damage is already done. To solve the problem of pervasive and acceptable domestic abuse, we have to change the most difficult thing of all—beliefs.
Rigoberta Menchú and Malala Yousafzai are exceptional cases, but I wonder what would happen if the women in South Sudan could share their own stories, both within their communities and beyond? I imagine their stories could help others understand the pain of the abuse they have endured. Their stories could hold community leaders accountable and call attention to bad behavior. Their stories could bring together other silent victims and attract empathy and support for their situation. The women would grow louder, clearer, and stronger—until they eventually accomplish the most difficult task of changing social beliefs, and then one day change the way they experience the world for the better.
STORYTELLING MATTERS is a new blog series at NAMAC where we will feature original and curated writing and photography about global story culture and innovation in the hopes of facilitating conversation about the ethical and responsible use of creative technologies in community. If you have a story to share for the series, let us know! email@example.com