In 2019, I hosted the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA)-South Sudan launch of the State of World Population 2019 Report "Unfinished Business: The pursuit of rights and choices for all.” One of my highlights from this event is the panel discussion that brought together some of the critical national decision influencers: including a Director-General for Reproductive Health from the Ministry of Health; a Presidential Advisor on Islamic Affairs; a Youth Focal point; and foreign representatives from two countries that are the biggest funders of reproductive health services in South Sudan - Swedish Head of Mission and Canadian Head of Cooperation.
The Youth Focal Point eloquently expressed adolescent girls and young women’s frustrations with the lack of youth-friendly and focused facilities and limited access to reproductive health services across South Sudan.
The Youth Focal Point eloquently expressed adolescent girls and young women's frustrations with the lack of youth-friendly and focused facilities and limited access to reproductive health services across South Sudan. This reality is even worse for South Sudanese women and girls with disabilities at the intersection of multiple forms of discrimination and Gender-Based Violence.
As a moderator, I shared a personal experience I had just encountered about two weeks ago to build on that and drive the conversation forward. I told the forum about how one time after work, I walked into a pharmacy in Juba in need of emergency contraceptive pills. There was only one pharmacist at the counter, a young man who politely told me they didn't have any. I said thank you and started walking away. Halfway into my exit from the pharmacy, the young man shouted: "excuse me, sister." I turned and walked back, thinking maybe he had found the pills. When I got to the counter, he asked me, "why are you against God's plans?"- meaning, why do I want to prevent pregnancy? I was shocked and confused, but I smiled and told him; that I was not ready for God's plans. I left the pharmacy, went to the next one, and got what I needed without any questions.
It’s why a random young man at a pharmacy who knew nothing about me, or my life felt entitled enough to give his opinion on my uterus’ business.
At the end of the event, one of the most prominent women leaders, whom I also consider a friend in the women's rights space, walked up to me, and said ‘you didn't have to share that story in such a big gathering.’ Talking about sex is taboo, and how or when to have sex is determined mainly by men across different cultures in South Sudan. While the expectation and responsibility to avoid getting pregnant rests on women, once she is pregnant, the decision to keep or terminate it is suddenly not up to her, but the public. It's why a random young man at a pharmacy who knew nothing about me, or my life felt entitled enough to give his opinion on my uterus' business.
I shared my experience publicly before hundreds of South Sudanese from all backgrounds at that UNFPA event because we cannot talk about access to sexual and reproductive health services in South Sudan if sex itself is taboo. In a country with 73% of the population under 30 and a child marriage rate of 52%, sexual and reproductive services that are not youth-centered, especially young women-focused, should be considered a national health threat and crisis. That panel discussion was one of the most illuminating, honest, reflective, and action-oriented conversations on addressing barriers to accessing sexual and reproductive health services in South Sudan for me. But in the end, that one comment still made me feel judged and shamed for sharing an experience that violated my right and dignity.
Three years later, this episode of Gender Talk 211 on "Sexual Autonomy for South Sudanese women" brought so much joy to my heart because conversations about bodily and sexual autonomy are often grounded in shame, guilt, and judgment, even in women's rights spaces in South Sudan. Reverend Janet Michael, a Senior Midwife, Advisor, and Director General for Training and Professional Development Services at the Ministry of Health, alongside a Young Feminist and Researcher, Ajak Ibrahim, talk so openly and publicly about virginity tests, consent, laws, cultural norms, stigma, and the need to break free from all this bondage was absolutely everything.
It took me years to unlearn all the shame associated with talking about or having sex, openly communicating my sexual needs and pleasure, and freely seeking sexual and reproductive care and services. Own my body and sex life. Last year, I had my first child because I wanted and felt ready to have one, but that's a reality not relatable to millions of South Sudanese women and girls. We cannot address something we don't share experiences about openly. Shame is historically one of the most effective tools used to control South Sudanese women and girls, a person who cannot shame you has no power over you.
The privilege of access to information, listening to other stories and experiences, and being in community with other women played a vital role in my journey of unlearning shame around sex. It’s why I believe conversations like "The Loose Woman" by Abul Oyay that promote self-expression. Spaces and platforms like Gender Talk 211 that bring together South Sudanese women, girls, and nonbinary people. Amplifying our voices, stories, and experiences, and documenting and digitizing our narratives are fundamental steps contributing to the attainment of individual agency that can facilitate a collective and movement against the subjugation of sexual and bodily autonomy across South Sudan.