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International Women's Day: Life as a woman in South Sudan

How many cows does a wife cost?

Women's football and prices for brides – Martha Abuk Malek talks about her life as a woman in South Sudan.

Martha Abuk Malek lives and works in South Sudan. She organises the distribution of food in the youngest country in the world on behalf of the Welthungerhilfe. In this interview to mark International Women's Day, she explains what moves women in South Sudan. For example: women's football, the lack of sanitary towels and cows as a form of currency. The interview was conducted by Sonja Eberle, who works for the Welthungerhilfe.

Sonja Eberle: The 8th March is International Women's Day...

Martha Abuk Malek: Yes, I know! We are holding an event in Nyamlel too: We are organising a women's football tournament. My team from Nyamlel is playing a group of women from the district of Aweil West.

Women's football in South Sudan – is that normal?

No, quite the opposite: Women's football is actually a little bit revolutionary. Here it is more common for men to play football. When I first got involved with women's football in 2005, there were only male teams in our village. When they played I used to stand on the sidelines, watch and ask myself: Why is it only men who are allowed to have this fun? I then spent ages begging the men to let me play and eventually they allowed me to join in. Over time other women have joined in. In 2011 there were so many of us that we founded our own women's football team.

Sonja Eberle and Martha Abuk Malek after the interview.
Martha Abuk Malek likes to spend her free time doing just one thing: playing football! Here she is playing – with no shoes for a change – with colleague Sonja Eberle.

You don't have the best conditions for playing football...

We don't have enough boots. Only four women on the team have any shoes at all – luckily I am one of them – the others have to play barefoot. We don't have our own kits either. We borrow the men's kit for tournaments. That is why we gave our team exactly the same name as the men's team: "Nyamlel Bright Star" – so it isn't a problem to use the same kit. At least my boss gave us a ball. The conditions for women playing football are not the best, but we have to get on with it – I hope that we will become so professional that we can set up a women's national football team in a few years.

Apart from football, what is it like being a woman in your country?

It is obvious that we are far from having equal rights. For example, many women and girls have no access to education. I was one of the few from my village who was allowed to go to school. School education remains a privilege for the male members of society here. Boys are bought school uniforms and school fees are paid for them. Girls stay at home, washing and cooking. Imagine: When a man wants to marry a woman, he has to pay her family in cows!!! A poor man can only pay up to eleven cows; rich men give up to 50 cows.

Because you are well-educated and you fought for it, you have now got a job at the Welthungerhilfe.

Decades of civil war in our country have created hundreds of thousands of refugees. I wanted to help these people. That is why I approached the Welthungerhilfe when they started working here back in April 2012. I wanted to get straight to work on reconstruction work. I applied as a volunteer and collected and distributed food parcels to refugees. Three months later I was given a fixed contract as a "Field Officer". It was a great day!

What do you want to achieve through your work with the Welthungerhilfe?

We are working together with the village inhabitants to build schools – this has already created more education in the region. Now we just need to get more girls to go to the schools.

There are said to be girls who stay away from schools for "hygienic reasons".

People spread horror stories saying that women who are on their period are dirty and unclean. And so many girls feel ashamed and don't go to school when it is their time of the month. As such they miss a lot of lessons and then have to work really hard to catch up again. And all because of some stupid rumours! They need sanitary towels, but unfortunately we don't have women's hygiene products like that in Nyamlel. You can sometimes buy sanitary towels in Aweil – but the prices are so high that no one can afford them. There is a real need to raise awareness here.

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