I interviewed five girls attending St. Mary’s Secondary School. St. Mary’s is an all-girls boarding school, and its student body includes both Ugandan and South Sudanese girls. Four of the five girls that I interviewed are South Sudanese refugees.
One of these interviewed was Sarah; she is a South Sudanese refugee, and her family lives in a refugee settlement. She returns to the settlement during three-weeks-long school breaks. When asked about her family, Sarah said something to this effect (we haven’t yet transcribed the interview, so I’m going off memory here):
When I clap, I cannot clap with only one hand. I am one hand. My family is my other hand. I need them to clap.
South Sudanese girls are at risk for early marriages as young as 13 years old. These girls are often seen as commodities to be traded for marriage dowries. Sharon, a journalist for Radio Salama who we also interviewed, described some parents as being excited when their daughter has her first menstrual period. This indicates that she is ready to marry, and her parents will soon receive more wealth in the form of a marriage dowry. I would imagine that this excitement and need for a dowry is only heightened by constrained resources amidst a conflict crisis.
So, what is a girl to do? She needs her family to clap, but her family sees her as a commodity.
Think of our American practice of a high-five as a sort of clap in which two hands hit to produce a clapping noise. The girl reaches out to her family with her hand held somewhere in the middle – not too high as she is well aware of her potential commodification but daring enough to reach out at all.
And, what usually happens?
She is, what we call, “left hanging” and unable to clap.
Her commodification prevails, and she is married at an age, that is for most of us, unthinkably young.
We clap at sporting events to cheer for our team. We clap to the beat of music to celebrate. We clap at the end of a performance to praise. We clap to get the attention of someone else.
Her inability to clap also means she is unable to cheer, celebrate, praise (and be praised), and, most of the time, even be heard.
Fortunately, Sarah was not left hanging. Her family supports her through their support of her education. With her education, she hopes to become a human rights lawyer who stands up for women’s rights.
“When you educate a girl, you educate a nation,” said a few interviewees. So that everyone clap together.