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In Sudan, Sitting in One Prison to Escape Another
Women Commit Adultery, Serve Time To Obtain Divorces

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.

Many educated Sudanese coming home to rebuild their country have very different ideas than their grandparents. Ajuoi is also working on a measure that would make it illegal for parents to keep children out of school, even to work with crops or cattle.

But she said laws involving women may be hardest to change, largely because of money. Payment of dowry cattle is at the heart of the region's economy.

"It may be easier to get rights for children than to get women's rights. Children are viewed as gifts, whereas women are seen as having a monetary worth because of the dowry," she said.

Conservative lawyers working on the new constitution argue that putting a woman in jail for adultery is practical and that many customary laws were built upon popular opinions of what is morally correct for society.

"To be very frank, it's an important preventive measure to protect a woman from getting killed," said one of those lawyers, William Ajal Deng. "Not all of our customary laws are bad. Divorce, in my opinion, should rarely be permitted at all. It's a bad thing for children."

Maker's husband is a gruff regional chief named Manganat Deng (and not related to William Deng). He said that even though Maker "misbehaves" and gets into fights with his first wife, he is opposed to divorcing her or returning her dowry.

"Why is this woman doing this to me? It's not done," he said with a scowl. "We Dinkas don't believe in divorce, even if there are problems. I do not want that as a solution." The Dinkas are the major tribe in southern Sudan.

But others see the traditional system as biased against women. Under customary laws, a woman or man who commits adultery must pay a fine, usually seven cows or about $800. Those who cannot pay serve six months in jail.

But there are no cases of any men being put in Rumbek prison for adultery, because they own cows and land and can afford the fines, said Cmdr. Benjamin Jok, who runs the facility. Women are not allowed to own property and so cannot bail themselves out.

"Men also are allowed to take as many wives as they can support," Jok pointed out.

He said he hardly considers the women in his custody criminals. Because the prison system has few funds , he lets them grow sorghum and ground nuts on a nearby farm and sell their produce in the market.

In certain cases, Jok agreed that jailing a woman was unfair. An elderly woman named Ayen Malual was sent to Rumbek prison because her son, an army soldier, failed to pay the dowry for his bride. Her family demanded cows, but the soldier had been sent away on duty and Malual had no animals to offer them.

"She loved my son, and we were happy with the marriage," said Malual, who sat with her spindly legs folded on the concrete cell floor. "It's just the dowry that was not there. These traditions can make things too hard. I miss my mattress and mosquito net at home."

Maker, already a mother of six, spends her nights with only a straw mat covering the cold cement. There are no toilets, so the women go to the bathroom outside. Most said they were depressed and angry, but willing to stay.

Last month Maker's 15-year-old daughter died of rabies. Four prison guards escorted Maker to the funeral. But at the ceremony, she said, her husband began shouting that he wanted to kill her.

"He started hurling sticks at me," she said. "I never want to be with that man again. My life is terrible with him. I will stay here until things change."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company