How traditional gender narratives can be used to advocate for girls’ and women’s education

By Emily LeRoux-Rutledge, Lecturer in Social Psychology, University of the West of England

“Education is very important for girls, women and for everyone. Education is the thing that will develop our country, and without education, the country will never go ahead,” declares a voice on community radio, in rural South Sudan. It is the voice of a primary school teacher, urging his community to send its girls to school. His words perfectly encapsulate a socially shared narrative prominent in South Sudan and much of the world: the educated woman narrative, in which a woman who finishes school is expected to earn an income, acquire material security for herself and her family, and work for the development of the country.

“When the girl is educated, it will reduce the level of poverty…” he continues, “Let’s say your daughter gets married for 30 cows, and then an educated one gets married for 150 cows. That means… [the] poverty that was in that family—she reduced that.” Has he misunderstood the point of girls’ education? Not necessarily—he is now drawing on another socially shared narrative in South Sudan: the bride narrative, in which marriage happens through the giving of cows.

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This example demonstrates but one of the ways in which people in South Sudan are creatively using traditional gender narratives to promote gender and development goals, such as girls’ education. In a recently published study in World Development—which draws on qualitative interviews and focus groups with 94 research participants in three rural South Sudanese communities, as well as hours of community radio content—the findings repeatedly show traditional gender narratives being used in this way, alongside modern ones, to promote gender and development goals, including education.

Why does this matter? In development circles, there’s a tendency to blame traditional gender roles and norms for slow progress towards goals such as girls’ education. The conclusion always seems to be that, for gender and development goals to be realized, traditional gender narratives must be challenged and changed. For example, a recent UNESCO report on South Sudan claims, “[There is] a strong bias against girls’ schooling… [F]emales tend to be viewed as a source of wealth for the family as a result of dowry payments and relocation of the girl to her husband’s family once married.” But, as we’ve just seen, the bride narrative can be used to advocate for girls’ education. So is the narrative really the problem, or the way it is sometimes used?

To put it another way, is there any harm in using traditional gender narratives to support goals such as girls’ education? Perhaps. If inegalitarian gender beliefs are intrinsic to traditional narratives, then perpetuating those narratives might perpetuate gender inequality. But avoiding, or directly opposing traditional narratives risks being ineffective, and ignores the ways in which people on the ground may be creatively deploying them. Scholars who study the ways in which human rights for women are pursued and enacted in local contexts maintain that they must be “vernacularized,” or framed, in terms of existing norms, values and practices. The more successfully this is done, the more traction the ideas get.

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More importantly, traditional narratives need not be used in isolation. Arguments based on traditional norms, values and practices can exist alongside arguments based on gender equality. As the opening example shows, girls in South Sudan can be encouraged in their education both because it will make them more desirable marriage partners, and because women deserve to take their place alongside men in developing the country. Moreover, if material changes in women’s education levels are actually achieved, then shifts in traditional attitudes, norms and values may follow.

Indeed, traditional narratives are not necessarily static, a mistake that many development practitioners make. They can change over time—especially if they are used to support gender and development goals. In South Sudan, an educated girl used to be less desirable as a marriage partner, but a man must now offer more cows to marry an educated girl. Thus, it may be that the bride narrative in rural South Sudan is taking on a new dimension, which reinforces the value of girls’ education.

This is why the aforementioned World Development article argues there may be value in considering how to harness, rather than reject, traditional narratives in pursuit of goals like girls’ education. It may be time for us to carefully re-evaluate the assumption that traditional narratives are barriers, and critically assess when the use of such narratives is helpful to achieve gender and development goals. Ideally, we should do this without ignoring the possibility that traditional narratives may perpetuate gender inequalities, and without forgetting that transformational arguments, based on gender equality, can be used simultaneously.

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This strategy can work. It worked for Elizabeth, a South Sudanese women who was extraordinarily determined to get an education as a child—so much so that she even said, “I had to kill myself because my parents wouldn’t let me go to school”. First, she explains her ambition using the educated woman narrative:

“If I continue my education, then I will be educated, and I will be somebody that can help…. Someone who is progressing, someone who is coming up, there are so many things you can do, and so many ways you can help your country.”

However, she persuaded her parents to send her to school using the bride narrative, and is extremely proud of the cows her education brought to her family:

“My husband brought so many cows that my parents were happy…. If I had not reached Primary 7, then the cows that I was married with might have not been brought to my parents. Because I know, so far, if you are educated, then you can bring many cows and so many good things to your parents.”

This raises a final point: that women often legitimately value the identities, roles and norms represented in traditional narratives, which emphasize close family relationships—one of the most important determinants of well-being.

For all of these reasons, it may be time to let go of the idea that traditional narratives are barriers to girls’ and women’s education. Critically harnessing traditional narratives would recognize the fact that traditional narratives are strategic for women, are valued by women, and are currently used to support some of the very gender and development goals that the international development community seeks to achieve.

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