South Sudan: For the love of cows [16 Days]

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From November 25 to December 10, the International Rescue Committee is observing the "16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence."

RUMBEK, SOUTH SUDAN - Angelina was 16 years old when her mother told her that she would have to get married. She had already agreed on a husband for her daughter, a man in the village. Angelina didn't know this man, but he owned a lot of cows - cows that her family needed for their livelihood.

Rumbek is a town that was affected by 21 years of civil war between North and South Sudan. Angelina is one of hundreds of thousands of people from the region who fled their country to take refuge in neighboring countries. She returned in 1999 from being displaced for eight years in Uganda. The IRC helps more than 450,000 people in South Sudan with health care, human rights advocacy measures and support for women facing violence.

In Rumbek, and in the culture of South Sudan, a cow means everything. Most families in Rumbek depend on cattle. They're such an important family asset that women are typically referred to based on how many cows they're "worth." Angelina equaled 70 heads of cattle.

For Angelina, a forced marriage meant having to drop out of school, and never again seeing the boy she loved and wanted to marry. Her father had died, and none of her brothers lived nearby, so Angelina wouldn't able to call for help from family if the arranged husband mistreated her.

Afraid of her prospects, Angelina tried running away from home. She fled on foot to a village three hours away to stay with an aunt, but was sent back home.

After Angelina tried running away a second time, this time with her boyfriend, her family said she could only marry the man of her choice if he could give the family the dowry they were expecting from the husband of their choice.

It took Angelina's boyfriend a full year to gather 70 cows. He borrowed from family, purchased what he could, and finally returned to present Angelina's mother and brothers with the dowry required. He and Angelina hadn't been allowed to contact each other over the course of the year, which was painful for her.

While Angelina was able to take control of her own fate and fight for her right to choose a partner, she wanted to do more with her skills and sense of self-determination. She wanted other girls in Rumbek to be able to complete their education and to claim their basic rights.

So in 2003, Angelina joined the IRC team in South Sudan. Today she works as a project officer, leading community outreach initiatives that promote understanding of the consequences for families and communities when violence against women and girls is permitted.