In Sudan, Sitting in One Prison to Escape Another

Ding Maker says she committed adultery to escape her abusive husband. In patriarchal southern Sudan, only men can file for divorce.
Ding Maker says she committed adultery to escape her abusive husband. In patriarchal southern Sudan, only men can file for divorce. (Photos By Michel Ducille -- The Washington Post)
By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, August 10, 2005

RUMBEK, Sudan -- Crouched in a dank prison ward, Ding Maker admits she broke the law by committing adultery. But she didn't do it for love, she says. Like many women in jail for infidelity in Sudan, she did it because she wanted a divorce. For three months, she has been sitting in a cell with 12 other women, hoping to shame her husband into repaying her dowry and leaving her.

"He abused and beat me, never paying for my food or taking care of our sick children," Maker said, adjusting her shiny green shirt over her swelling belly. She is pregnant from the affair, but not worried about it.

"I had no other way to get divorced," she said. "I was his second wife and he wasn't caring for me. I don't mind staying here. I will just wait."

In patriarchal southern Sudan, as in much of Africa, only men have the right to file for divorce. The one legal loophole for Sudanese women is to commit adultery, a crime that is instant grounds for divorce. But even then, most husbands refuse to agree to one because they don't want to ask their relatives to return the dowry -- in Maker's case, 90 cows -- they have received from the bride's family and distributed as gifts.

All of this, however, could change. Southern Sudan, now at peace after two decades of civil war with the north, is drawing up a new constitution and attempting to craft a modern penal code. With international donors reluctant to aid an entity that jails women for adultery or elopement, its new leaders are reviewing traditional rules regarding marriage, dowry and divorce.

But many women have started defying the rules on their own, in part because they became more independent from men during the civil war, and in part because the political liberation of the region has brought new ideas and influences into a tightly controlled tribal society.

Virtually all 24 women in Rumbek prison's female ward are there because they defied customary family laws. More than half have been charged with adultery; the rest have been jailed for eloping or failing to follow traditional marriage rules.

"With peace and talk of change, adultery and requests for divorce are more frequent than they were ever before," said Chief Justice Ambrose Riny Thiik of South Sudan's Superior Court. "In fact, we're all surprised it's happening already."

But Thiik, 62, wonders if citizens will accept such drastic changes. In Sudanese society, "the couple may not be in love at all," he said. "These are arranged marriages to create an economic network of family relations. If we change these rules, our entire society could change."

According to Akur Ajuoi, a lawyer who works with UNICEF, the push to reject these traditions has been a byproduct of the 21-year war between the Arab-dominated north and the African south. With their husbands away fighting for long periods, women learned to manage their own farms and cattle herds.

"Now that their husbands are back, they want more rights," Ajuoi said. "There is also a lot of influence from the outside. Times are changing and women are getting enlightened. As much as we want to say that traditions are nice and are going to stay, we should leave the harmful ones behind."

Ajuoi is an example of the new outside influences. A war refugee, she was educated in Kenya and South Africa, both more modern countries where women can obtain a divorce in the courts.

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