Sudan is characterized by diversity. Many families, clans and tribes claim genealogies that can be traced back generations to Arab origins. Yet the complexity of ethnicities indicates genetic and cultural intermingling that goes back much further.
Islam is an integral part of Sudan’s social fabric and media landscape as well as a politically mobilizing and polarizing force. However, other socio-economic and cultural factors play various interlinked roles in shaping the country.
Rural communities are characterized by traditional tribal and ethnic social structures and subcultures. Modern large-scale agricultural projects, such as the Gezira irrigation scheme, attract labourers from all over the country, forming a sort of national melting pot, especially in and around the capital Khartoum.
Clans, Communities, Tribalism and Sectarianism
A multitude ethnic groups, languages and religions coexist in Sudan. The country is divided into two major ethnic groups: Arab and African. Ethnic communities are divided into several tribes. Arab tribes live mostly in the centre of the country and to a lesser extent in the west; African tribes are concentrated in the far north, the Nuba Mountains, the Southern Blue Nile, the east and Darfur in the west.
Traditional life centres around the tribe, which represents one of the most important forms of social organization. A great deal of the local economy, politics and social life is organized or influenced by tribal traditions and norms. For example, in pastoral communities the land is usually owned by the tribe rather than individuals and land use rights are negotiated between tribes. Tribal influence is a decisive factor even in representation in modern governmental institutions, such as national and regional parliaments. In rural areas, only candidates with strong tribal support win elections.
The majority of the population is Muslim. This is especially obvious in South Sudan, where 97% of the population adheres to Islam. Tolerant Sufism is the dominant form of Islam but it is far from homogenous. Following independence, the two largest Islamic sects, Khatmiyya and Ansar, gave birth to Sudan’s main political parties, the National Unionist Party (later the Democratic Unionist Party) and the Umma Party, paving the way for future divisive religious politics.
More recently, relatively radical Islamic movements have emerged, demanding the establishment of an Islamic state that enforces sharia law. These movements, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, which has used various names throughout its history in Sudan, have posed a threat to the traditional religious sects, and played a more important role in Sudanese culture. The traditional religious sects, and their associated political parties, built their legitimacy on traditional Sunni Islam. The Muslim Brotherhood introduced a more modernist religious approach, with strong influence among the urban educated population, better organizational skills, and a powerful media and propaganda machine coupled with regional support outside Sudan. Thus, the Muslim Brotherhood has gradually managed to confine the traditional sectarian parties to rural areas.
Women played an important role and could be leaders in the Kingdom of Kush, which flourished from 800-350 BCE. Their current status, however, is largely the result of recent developments. There have been several reversals since 1974, when women gained the constitutional right to representation in all public institutions. The political freedoms won by bodies such as the Sudan Women’s Union and decades of progress towards equality now face a backlash under the guide of religious law.
In 2015, Sudan ranked number 167 out of 188 countries in the Human Development Index, which includes the status of women as an important component. Sudan has yet to sign the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, adopted in 1979 by the UN General Assembly.
In 2014, women accounted for about 24% of representatives in the National Assembly. This is a high percentage compared with many other countries, including many Western European countries. But the figure means little when one looks at the everyday reality of women in social and family life, the labour market, education and so forth. For example, female genital mutilation (FGM) still prevails despite awareness-raising campaigns. Many religious leaders oppose efforts to curb the practice, arguing that it is an Islamic requirement.
In 2010, girls enrolled in schools up to the secondary education level was about 12.8% compared to 18.2% for boys. Women’s access to health care, particularly in rural areas, continues to be insufficient. The maternal mortality rate in 2008 stood at 750 per 100,000 live births, compared with 9.1 per 100,000 births in the United States. The adolescent fertility rate (births per 1,000 women aged 15-19) in 2014 was 76.
About 87% of the total agricultural labour force is women, the majority of whom are employed in traditional subsistence agriculture. In most parts of the country, women do not have land ownership rights or are not paid for their labour, which is considered part of the house economy run by men.
Young people make up 62% of the total population and the majority lives in poverty. One third of young women and a quarter of young men aged 15-24 are illiterate. Around half of young men and women have completed primary school, which indicates a high dropout rate. Admission to secondary schools and higher education is still low, especially in rural areas.
Young people who struggle to access education also have difficulty finding work. Overall, 20% of Sudanese youth is unemployed; the percentage of unemployed young women is even higher. This has led to mounting frustration. Even those who find employment in the informal sector work long hours for low wages and without social protection. Young people are also particularly at risk from drug use and exposure to sexually transmitted diseases.
The civil war that began in 1983 and is ongoing in several regions, has taken its toll. For many young people, migration is seen as the only way out.
Yet despite making up the majority of the population, youth participation in Sudan’s political and social life is limited. A number of governmental and non-governmental programmes have been established to target and resolve youth issues.
Sudan’s pre-independence public education system was designed by the colonial power to produce civil servants and professionals. Post-independence, the system underwent many changes, aimed at meeting the country’s dynamic economic and social needs. Today, education in Sudan is free and compulsory for children aged six to 13. Primary education lasts eight years, followed by three years of secondary school. Students can choose between two academic tracks: scientific-literary and technical (agricultural-industrial-commercial).
The language of education at all levels is Arabic. Schools are concentrated in urban areas. Primary school enrollment in 2001 was estimated by the World Bank at 46% of eligible students and 21% of eligible secondary school students. Enrollment varies widely, falling below 20% in some provinces.
Besides public education, Egyptian educational missions and missionary schools have contributed a great deal to education in Sudan, with activities extending to a number of provinces.
Private education at primary and secondary levels was introduced in the 1950s, and spread quickly after the deterioration in public education. Although there are no exact figures, there are known to be several expensive and prestigious private schools in Khartoum, accommodating pupils from upper-class families and teaching in English.
Higher education emerged in 1902 with the establishment of Gordon Memorial College. It changed its name to the Khartoum University College and broke away from the University of London in 1956, becoming the University of Khartoum.
Before independence, several educational institutions were established to award diplomas to government employees who had completed secondary school. One of these was the Khartoum Technical Institute, the leading centre of technical education in Sudan. It became the Khartoum Polytechnic Institute in 1975 and was given university status in 1990, becoming the Sudan University of Science and Technology.
Cairo University (Khartoum Branch) was established in 1955 and renamed Al-Neelain University in 1993. In 1975, the universities of Juba and Gezira were established.
After the ‘revolution of higher education’ of 1990, the number of government universities jumped from five to 35 in 2010. At the same time, higher education became a field of private investments and tens of private universities and colleges were opened in all parts of the country, with a noticeable concentration in Khartoum. The number of private universities and colleges is now estimated to be around 61. This tremendous upsurge resulted in a shocking drop in government expenditure on public education, accounting for only 1% in 2010 and 2% in 2011.
The rapid expansion of higher education institutions was accompanied by a marked deterioration in the quality of the education provided, and some 45% of graduates is unemployed.
The Ministry of Health provides health services in cooperation with the private sector and through other health sub-systems and health care organizations. These bodies organize health care on three levels: the public sector, National Health Insurance Fund which contributes to health financing and has its own private health facilities, and the private sector which is growing rapidly in major cities, with a focus on curative care.
According to official figures, there are 366 government hospitals of various capacities and another 185 hospitals owned by the private sector as well as more than 1,400 health care centres. The ratio of doctors per 100,000 citizens is 86. The same figures state that only 45.9% of the population benefits from health insurance services. Despite the fact that the number of health facilities in Sudan has grown significantly over the last ten years, privatization policies is making it difficult for more people, especially in rural areas, to access proper health care.
The funding system is based on user fees along with social solidarity programs. The social health insurance system was introduced in 1995, coinciding with the private sector expansion. However, the health insurance system is concentrated in urban and semi-urban areas. Millions of rural residents, particularly in areas affected by war, are not covered by the health insurance network. In 2006, free emergency care for the first 24 hours was introduced and, in 2008, financial support for pregnant women and children under the age of five became available.
Even so, maternal and child mortality rates in 2013 were higher than previous years. Sudan is still to achieve the Millennium Development Goals of reducing child mortality and improving maternal health. Child malnutrition is a serious health challenge.
Sudan is home to a number of tropical and infectious diseases. Malaria is the most deadly and widespread due to the high temperatures and poor drainage infrastructure. Malaria poses a national health threat, with more than 1.5 million cases reported in 2010 alone. Yellow fever, hepatitis A and typhoid are also common.
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