“South Sudan refugees in Uganda January 2014” by European Commission DG ECHO is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Much press has (deservedly) been given to the Lost Boys of Sudan, those boys who were displaced or orphaned during the civil war in Southern Sudan. Yet the question remains: what about the girls? Did any survive, and, if so, why hasn’t their story been told?
Most of the young women we interviewed while writing our book said that, before the civil war, life in Southern Sudan was simple and good. These women were also quick to point out that, even during the best of times, it has always been tough to be a woman in Sudan. For one, girls are often discouraged from going to school. What is more, marriages are often arranged, leaving young women with little choice about their life partner. Because of the practice of bridewealth, girls’ families — especially poor ones — are often motivated to arrange marriages at a young age so they can receive gifts of cattle, goats, money and other gifts from the groom’s family. If a husband decides to beat his wife, for example, the woman often has little to no recourse.
From 1983 to 2005, Sudan was ravaged by a civil war that pitted the North against the South. Villages were burned to the ground, and children were forced to flee. Displaced and orphaned children made a treacherous thousand-mile trek by foot in order to reach the relative safety of a refugee camp. Along the way many died from starvation, dehydration, bombs and land mines. Yet despite these many dangers there were girls who, against all odds, survived, just like their male counterparts.
Unlike the boys who were encouraged to tell their stories when aid workers or resettlement agents came to the refugee camps, girls were discouraged from sharing what had happened to them. Girls were taught to keep silent about their suffering. For example, if a young woman was raped, she herself could be blamed for the rape. For this reason, many women decided it was better to keep silent.
While the boys were grouped together, many of the girls were placed with ad hoc foster families who, due to poverty and war, were motivated to arrange marriages without the girls’ consent so they could benefit economically from receiving the bridewealth. Often they were treated as servants or worse within these foster families. When resettlement agents looked for candidates who could be sent to countries such as the United States, Canada and Australia, the town elders volunteered the boys, whom they considered to be better educated, stronger and more likely to find success in a new country.
Of the 3,700 young Sudanese refugees who were initially settled in the United States in 2001, only 89 of them were female.
Lost Girl Found is the story of a girl who does survive and who wants, more than anything, to get an education. Though the book is fiction, it is based on the real stories of many female refugees who shared their stories with us. The common thread among all the women’s stories was one of resilience, a strong will and the desire to get an education. The young women we spoke with hope that by bettering their own situations they will eventually be able to return to and give back to their communities in South Sudan. They believe that, should their voices someday be included in the governing of the new, independent South Sudan, there may be hope for a more peaceful future.
All proceeds from Lost Girl Found will go to africare.org, an organization whose goal is helping African populations build sustainable, healthy and productive communities.