How the lost girls became the forgotten girls
On Sunday, “60 Minutes’’ is scheduled to air the story of The Lost Boys of Sudan, the thousands of South Sudanese orphaned children whose 1,000-mile trek through East Africa shone a spotlight on the genocidal brutality of the North Sudanese regime more than two decades ago.
In 2001, the TV news show followed the lost boys as they embarked from Africa to new lives in the United States. Now it is following up with a two-part special: The Lost Boys Ten Years Later.
The great unanswered question is: Where in all this are Sudan’s lost girls?
“The lost boys” was a name bestowed on the children who fled from their destroyed villages, but it didn’t capture the scope of that panicked flight. Included in the exodus to Ethiopia and finally to Kenya were adults, families, and a large number of orphaned girls who, along with the boys, survived starvation, disease, animal predation, and bombing attacks. The boys built their own dwellings and lived communally. But this wasn’t a culturally acceptable arrangement for the girls, who instead were placed with families from their home districts — sometimes relatives, sometimes not.
In 2000 the State Department began an unprecedented effort to bring these Sudanese youngsters to the United States. Now, more than a decade later, almost all of these former refugees are citizens — working, going to school, paying taxes, building families, some of them fighting with America’s armed forces.
But of the 3,700 who initially came here, only 89 were girls. Hundreds of girls had lived through and survived the very same traumas the boys had. Where were these girls? Why were they not included? What had happened to them?
The quick answer is that they were simply overlooked. The real answer is more complex. In traditional Sudanese life, girls are often married in their early teens. Marriages are arranged by families and the groom’s family typically pays a large bride price to the girl’s family. Girls are, in this sense, an economic commodity. In the poverty-stricken refugee camps, foster families most often saw them exclusively that way. Pre-adolescent girls were domestic labor, and marriageable-age girls could be sold off as brides.
As a result, most of the “lost girls” were kept at home to work and few were allowed to attend school once they entered puberty. That meant their names were often not on the lists the United States used to generate the register of youngsters selected for resettlement. Refugee workers also found that girls whose names did appear on the publicly posted lists suddenly disappeared, hidden or kidnapped, to be sold as brides, often to much older men. Most of the 89 who did make it to the United States had brothers or close friends who brought them along to the resettlement interviews. Hundreds of others weren’t so lucky.
They are gone now, those lost girls, sold into marriage against their will and denied rights to education and choices for their future. One 14-year-old back then was slated to be the third wife to a man three times her age. The thick scars around the neck of another highlighted her husband’s violent abuse. Another girl had taken her own life rather than face the hopelessly oppressive future laid out for her.
The few who did make it out are impressive people. Aduei Riak is one of those. She graduated from Brandeis University and went on to get a master’s degree at the London School of Economics. Another is Yar Ayuel, who earned a bachelor’s degree in finance and works for a Boston area nonprofit while raising a family. They and their fortunate sisters are poster children for the rights of refugee girls and women who so often are invisible to the international agencies that should be most attentive to their needs.
Today, refugee displacement is worsening in many cases; the average length of time an individual lives as a refugee is 17 years. Refugee girls, particularly those who are orphaned, separated from family, or have inadequate care arrangements, continue to find themselves in life-threatening situations.
The humanitarian community must persist in educating itself about the specific dangers that vulnerable girls face and take protective action to insure that they have opportunities to realize their aspirations — and to prevent the kinds of tragedies that enveloped the lost girls of Sudan.
Sasha Chanoff is the founder and director of RefugePoint. David Chanoff is a writer.