Historically livestock were the primary targets of raids, and the conflicts occurred between the men in the societies who were responsible for defense and carrying out justice in the form of revenge. Academics argue that women and children were rarely the targets of raids and inter-ethnic warfare before the 1990s (Jok and Hutchinson 1999). However, one major exception to this was the abduction of women and children.

Abductions are not a new phenomenon in South Sudan, and records show it has been practiced by many ethnic groups both in the past and even today. Abductions are a means of expanding family or wealth. The social pressures on women to have children, and the fact that children and young women have become ‘property’ to be stolen and sold, has led to abductions being part of the political economy of warfare. The fluid identity found among many ethnic groups means that victims usually become assimiliated into their new culture. As most people are unlikely to admit their involvement in the illicit trade, current information on the issue is extremely limited and more research is urgently needed. Based on various interviews by the author and anecdotal evidence, the issue of abduction in South Sudan appears to be both more complex and more nuanced than one is often led to believe.

The value of women in many South Sudanese societies is closely connected to their ability to bear children. Girls provide a brideprice when they are later married, which helps to cover the original brideprice paid for the mother. Boys are valued as they are able to continue the family lineage, protect the family, and increase the family herds through raiding. If a woman cannot have children, then the original brideprice paid for her can be asked to be returned by the husband’s family. This creates significant social pressures on a woman to have children.

Due to these pressures, there have been child markets in South Sudan as far back as records exist. Information on the trade in children is even harder to find than abductions. Colonial records mention a market outside Bor, in Jonglei State, where children were bought and sold in the past. Sources in Jonglei also referred this market in interviews (Arensen 2012 b). Children were sold or traded, usually in exchange for cattle, to those families who wanted to expand or those who were unable to have their own children. While some of the children were abducted, others were sold by poor families out of economic desperation. In addition children who were born from culturally defined ‘incest’ were often sold, either at the market, or directly. Incest in this case does not adhere to the western understanding of the concept. Among some cultures in South Sudan incest includes relations between people who share patrilineal bloodlines i.e. relations with cousins from your father’s side is deemed incest, while cousins from the mother’s side are marriageable. Who is defined as family, and who is marriageable, can become extremely complex as ethnic groups have different rules and family lines are well known many generations back.

While the market outside Bor has been closed for a long time, some sources claim the direct sale of children has occurred as recently as the late 2000s. The prices for purchasing children in the post-CPA period varied a great deal, from as low as ten cattle to as high as fifty (Arensen 2012 b). As with other illegal markets where the rule of law does not apply, criminals have begun to use the market as a means of scamming the desperate. Reports exist of families who have purchased children from criminals, but then later were accused of abduction themselves (ibid). The authorities have later forced them to return the children. This leaves the family without the cattle they originally paid, as well as no child. One older Murle woman exclaimed in an interview that she was now ‘owed a child’ as she has been left with no cattle wealth and her ‘son’ was also taken from her (ibid). An older woman with no children or cattle in South Sudan is in a position of extreme vulnerability.

In some ethnic groups the adopted children are given the full rights provided to them as a member of society. They take over the family herds, continue the family legacy and in some cases even receive social positions that are normally passed on through hereditary lines. In Mice or Men Jon Arensen narrates the story of a well-known chief in Pibor at the time (1970s):

One of the prominent chiefs among the Murle is a man who was originally a Masongo (Majangir) from Ethiopia. His story is well known among the Murle people. They say that he was originally captured as a boy by the Anuak when they made a raid on the Masongo. He was later traded to a Murle chief for a single elephant tusk. He was then raised as a son of the Murle chief and has inherited his position. Even though everyone knows his background, he is considered by all to be a Murle and a legitimate chief. (1992:40)

Meanwhile, a Murle man from the 1940s who worked with the Pibor District Commissioner claimed that he was originally Pari and was abducted by Murle in a raid while a baby. However when he was around twelve he was abducted again along with a few dozen other women and children by the Lotuko and was raised as a Lotuko (Jon Arensen 2013). Identity is fluid among many ethnic groups in South Sudan and assimilation of one community into another was common in the past. Jok and Hutchinson explain that women have a more flexible ethnic identity than men. Inter-ethnic marriage was a common means of building relations between groups as well as a means of assimilation (2002). The flexibility regarding the identity of women meant that those abducted could be married into their new society and not be treated as an outsider. The increasing use of ethnicity as a means of mobilizing for conflicts in the past thirty years has begun to change this perception, and identity has become more fixed.

The motivations for abductions are also closely tied to the political economy of warfare. Children are abducted either with the intention of expanding one’s family, or for selling the child in exchange for cattle. Young men might abduct a child for a sister or family member who is not able to have children. Alternatively, he may sell the child to a childless lady or couple. Essentially young women and children are often perceived as ‘property’ to be stolen, sold and bought. Abducted women are usually traded or sold for cattle rather than kept with the abductor himself- as this is commonly considered taboo. Women who are not bought with brideprice are not given the status of a wife in society. Young men would historically not be able to marry at a young age due to the high cost of brideprice and their dependence on the extended family to donate the cattle. The two common means for young men to access cattle, and therefore marriage, is by either stealing cattle or by abducting women and children they can exchange for cattle. Young women or adolescent girls are targets, as they have many years of child-bearing age left.

Conflicts further expanded the demand for abductions as families lose their children to war. Those too old to have more children look to adopt or buy children. In South Sudan parents are dependent upon their children to take care of them in old age and to continue the family legacy. A man with no children, especially no sons, is at a great loss in South Sudan, and many groups historically practiced levirate marriage to ensure a man with no children has them even after he dies . Although based on limited information, those who were in the market for children fell into two categories- families who are unable to have their own, or older women who have lost all their children in conflict (Arensen 2012 b).

Politicised rhetoric and stereotypes of the Murle

There is a widespread narrative found in the media, as well as among both government and NGO officials, that abduction is only practiced by the Murle ethnic group in Jonglei as they have issues of sterility. As the narrative is so common, and false, these stereotypes will be directly addressed. Historic records show abductions was common among many ethnic groups in South Sudan in the past, and in recent years other ethnic groups have also admitted involvement in abductions. For example, Lou Nuer youth admitted in 2012 to abducting women and children from the Murle during major attacks (Arensen 2012 a). While the youth claimed the abductions were only in response to Murle abductions, the stealing of women and children has become part a normal part of the political economy of war in South Sudan. In cyclical violence the motivations behind ‘revenge abductions’ loses significance after years of cyclical violence.

The most common abduction myth in South Sudan is that the Murle people abduct due to issues of sterility. This rhetoric has no basis in current medical data, and it is also used as a means to emasculate the Murle, frequently regarded as the pariah of Jonglei State . Records from B.A. Lewis and Jon Arensen, two Murle experts, show that there were periods in the past where Murle did face fertility challenges. These are likely the source of the current myth. Lewis worked as an administrator during the 1930s and 1940s and claims that the Murle complained of the “infertility of their women” due to the introduction of gonorrhea by the military posted in Pibor (1972). Later Lewis refers to the newfound fertility of the Murle. (1972:154,160). Jon Arensen also heard of temporarily reduced birthrates among the Murle in the 1960s due to venereal disease, but it is unclear if this was a continuation of the gonorrhea from Lewis’ time or a new disease. However, a campaign by WHO eradicated the disease in Pibor in the 1960s, and infertility among the Murle has not been identified as a problem in the past fifty years. While the period of reduced fertility increased demand among the Murle for children, abductions were common long before these periods, and not just among the Murle. The administrator BA Lewis states, “it will be interesting to see if the new-found fertility in Murle women will curb the illicit trade in ‘incest children’ for cattle with the Bor Dinka; a practice frowned upon by authority, but difficult to prevent” (1972:160).

Policy implications for protection workers

Records from the 1940s, 1970s, as well as examples from the past few years show administrators struggling with the identification and return of abducted children. In addition further sensitivities and challenges for child protection workers arise when children are too young to remember being abducted and now primarily identify with their new adopted family and ethnic group. For example, one male adult in Pibor refused to return to his original family, as he was old enough to remember being sold when he was a child. As the oldest son in his adopted family he had access to the family herds, and asked why he would want to return to be a seventh child with no cattle wealth or prospects in a family that gave him away (Arensen 2012 b). To complicate the matter, legal adoptions have become increasing common as people try to increase their family through legitimate means. Recent changes in Ugandan adoption law, and the independence of South Sudan, has reduced adoptions from Uganda and Sudan, which people identified as the most common destinations for those wanting children in the past. Easing regulations and accessibility of adoption within South Sudan could be considered as a means of reducing illicit methods of gaining children.

In conclusion, the issue of abductions in South Sudan is far more complex and nuanced than is usually portrayed by the media, government and international actors. The political economy of war, the cultural and economic significance of children for families, the perception of women and children as property, the lack of economic alternatives- and therefore social access to marriage- among young men, the economic desperation of families who sell children, the taboos regarding ‘incest children,’ the cycle that arises from revenge abductions, and the need to replace lost children killed in conflicts are all directly linked to the root causes of abductions within the country. Furthermore new restrictions has meant that families are facing greater challenges in being able to adopt through legal channels. All these influences must be understood and integrated into a holistic approach in order to end the practice of abduction.