In my literature class at school, we read What is the What by Dave Eggers. The book is a collaboration between Valentino Achak Deng and Eggers, and capitalizes on the strengths of both men to compellingly portray the saga of one the "Lost Boys of Sudan." (Incidentally, the American Association of University Women chose it for their Adelante! Books of the Month Program.) All proceeds from the book benefit Valentino Achack Deng Foundation, which among many things, built and operates a school in Deng's hometown. The school, importantly, encourages girls to enroll. According to the website, "Currently, less than one percent of girls complete secondary school in Southern Sudan. The Foundation is raising funds to construct a boarding facility, to provide female students with a safe learning environment and an alternative to early marriage."
But I'm getting ahead of myself. What is the What intrigued me most when it shed light on women and girls in southern Sudan. In many ways, the girls of Sudan were "lost" even before the northern government launched horrific attacks on the villages in the south in the early 1980s, massacring people, kidnapping children and women for slavery, and raping women and girls. As noted, girls were encouraged to marry early. The book notes that girls were/are considered of marriageable age at the onset of menstruation. In some villages and Dinka cultures, celebrations were held to let men in the community know that the girls were ready to be married, which is not unlike debutant balls in the southern United States. Girls who were/are not mentally or emotionally ready for marriage yet will try and hide their periods for as long as possible.
Once the brutal attacks began, though, thousands of children found themselves without families. Thousands of unaccompanied children walked for months to reach sanctuary in Ethiopia and Kenya. Most of these were boys, and they became famous as the "Lost Boys of Sudan." Some, however, were girls. They remained invisible.
I learned that part of the invisibility of the displaced girls of Sudan is due to cultural heritage. People in charge of refugee camps tended to attach unaccompanied girls to whatever foster families they could find. Boys were generally left in group settings. The girls then assumed traditional female roles with their foster families, doing chores and housework. They often were unable to attend the camp schools or youth activities as a result.
In addition, when the United States and other countries offered to resettle thousands of Sudanese orphans, they mostly considered boys. The girls, afterall, were attached to foster families and not orphaned. (Although the book makes clear that many of the young men who came over also had families in Sudan, and understandably lied about their family status to get out of the stifling refugee camps.) So once again, the girls were lost.
The Lost Girls of Sudan are so lost, in fact, that it is hard to find people who blog about them. In 2007, Lisala Perry wrote:
While the "Lost Boys" of Sudan have garnered attention through writing their own books, magazine articles, and being featured in documentaries and on Aaron Spelling's popular show "7th Heaven," the smaller group of "Lost Girls" of Sudan are hardly mentioned. As matter of fact, I can't find any articles about the girls written after 2005. It could be because of their numbers; the group of boys forced to become refugees is believed to be a little more than 26,500, while the girls number just above 13,000. This puts fewer women in each country to band together, and gives them a smaller voice.
It doesn't help that they don't necessarily have a big public voice even when they are gathered in larger numbers....
Allez Oup chose to research the Lost Girls of Sudan for an anthropolgy class. She could not even find a picture of "Lost Girls" for her post. She noted:
...I found out that less than 3% of the U.S. refugees from the 2nd Sudanese war were female. This was a result of gender stereotypes from the UN — so although the girls were the same age as the boys, they were deemed too young to travel to the United States, and were instead placed in the care of foster parents in the Kakuma Kenya refugee camp (and then those foster parents sold the girls to be slaves, brides, and whatnot so they could feed themselves). Also, there were not many girls to start out with; they were usually at home when the villages were attacked, and the boys were mostly out herding cattle.
Also during her research, she was excited to come across a page from Refugees International called, "Do Not Forget the Lost Girls of Sudan." When she clicked over, she discovered that the page no longer existed. Yeah.
Since there are so few female Sudanese refugees in the United States (in addition to the whopping 89 "Lost Girls" who came to the US with over 3,500 young men, many women in Sudan have subsequently married Lost Boys who were resettled here and came here that way), it makes a lot of sense to focus on the plight of women and girls who remain in southern Sudan. Here I give big props to the Valentino Achack Foundation, as it not only supports educating females, but also set up a Women's Actoin Group, empowered women to leadership roles in the new community center, and offered a seed grant for women to start up a cooperative restaurant business.
The Lost Girls (and Women) of Sudan have been lost for too long. I thank Valentino Achak Deng, his foundation, and Dave Eggers for bringing at least a little slice of light onto their situation. In a similar vein, Dark Exodus, the Lost Girls of Sudan pledged to donate a portion of the procedes from the book, which collects the stories of 16 Lost Girls living in Dallas, to Sudanese women here.
Suzanne also blogs at Campaign for Unshaved Snatch (CUSS) & Other Rants.
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