Track Changes: What daughters are worth

The Los Angeles Times published an article in July by Robyn Dixon – Child brides sold for cows: The price of being a girl in South Sudan – that reports on child marriage in South Sudan. The article, however, simplifies the issue and falls into assumptions of American and European traditions of marriage rather than understanding the cultural context of South Sudan.

Andrew Apter, a professor of history and anthropology at UCLA, wrote a letter to the Los Angeles Times editor outlining the assumptions the article’s author made:

The plight of young daughters in South Sudan is indeed horrific, but their problems stem from war and poverty, not from a culture that commodifies women.

Women of this region are not bought and sold for cash. They are exchanged for lineage-owned cattle, understood as socially reproductive “bridewealth.” When a husband marries a wife she reproduces for his family, perpetuating his lineage while building ties of kinship and marriage between in-laws. If a wife divorces her husband and returns to her kinfolk, they can repay the bridewealth cattle to reclaim her children. This is a far cry from selling women like animals.

Many undergraduates learn about this in anthropology 101, when they read E. E. Evans-Pritchard’s classic monograph, “Kinship and Marriage Among the Nuer.” Today’s violence toward daughters in South Sudan represents the crisis of social reproduction triggered by civil war, oil politics, and climate change.