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Why Women Conform

The South Sudanese Civil War as a Case Study for the Insecurity of Women as the Greatest Predictor of Rebellion

Children in Sudan 1440x1920


This paper aims to provide a context in which the literature of two generally separate fields—gender and insecurity, and predictors of rebellion—can be combined to strengthen the existing framework of security studies. Using the South Sudanese civil war as a case study, it will propose that the greatest indicator of a future uprising is the insecurity of women and that until literature, legislation and military planning address this correlation, true security will be impossible. Finally, it will caution against the vulnerability of perpetuating narratives of men as militarised providers for women and children in need of masculinised protection.


Within academic scholarship on non-conventional warfare, there is a vast body of literature surrounding the political, economic and social precursors to violence. While scholars offer a wide range of theories as to which factors are the most accurate predictors of rebellion, there appears to be a notable absence of one of the most crucial components of state security—the role of women.

A consistent theme in titles such as Why Men Rebel[i] indicates the problem—scholars fail to acknowledge the impact of half the global population on matters of security. Using the case study of the South Sudanese civil war of 2013–2020, this paper aims to demonstrate that the greatest indicator of a future uprising is the insecurity of women. It will achieve this by first conducting a brief overview of the situation in South Sudan, with a specific focus on the gendered impacts of the conflict, to frame the problem. After establishing the fundamental theoretical concepts that will underpin the analysis, this paper will conduct an overview of the existing body of research on indicators of a future insurgency. Specifically, it will introduce the concepts of Goldstone’s four predictors of rebellion and the academic evolution that resulted in its reputation as one of the most accurate models of anticipating insecurity. This paper will then apply a gendered lens to Goldstone’s[ii] model to demonstrate how the framework’s utility in predicting civil unrest is strengthened through the deliberate consideration of women. Next, it will explore whether Maher’s ‘Triangle of Rebellion’[iii] is applicable to the situation in South Sudan. Finally, it will draw on South Sudanese examples to caution against the inherent vulnerability of perpetuating a narrative in which men are considered to be the militarised providers for women and children in need of masculinised protection.[iv] In conclusion, it will attempt to demonstrate that until the literature, legislation and military planning at all levels acknowledge and respond to the correlation between the insecurity of women and that of the state, true security will be impossible.


Since its independence in 2011, South Sudan has experienced multiple insurgencies,[v] culminating in Africa’s longest civil war.[vi] Within two years of independence, President Salva Kiir accused his former deputy Riek Machar of attempting a coup d’état, igniting a civil war between the South Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement (SSPLM) and the South Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement In Opposition (SSPLM-IO) that lasted until February 2020. In addition to the political tensions of the conflict, there were also ethnic undertones, with the two politicians representing the country’s two largest ethnic groups, the Dinka (Kiir) and the Nuer (Machar).[vii] It has been estimated that over 400,000 were killed[viii] and millions displaced during the conflict.[ix]

Although South Sudan is a country rich in natural oil resources and the cultural history of 64 tribes,[x] the gendered impacts of the civil war have prompted many to describe South Sudan as one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a woman.[xi] Sexual violence, predominately perpetrated against women and girls by men, was utilised as an integral component of the war strategy for the purposes of ethnic cleansing, humiliation and revenge.[xii] It has been estimated that in 2016, 70 per cent of women living in internally displaced camps had been raped, with the majority of the perpetrators being soldiers and members of the police service.[xiii]

In addition to significant levels of gender-based violence, women and girls faced high rates of child and forced marriages, maternal mortality and a disparate level of education compared to their male counterparts.[xiv]

Furthermore, despite the existence of a recognised currency, the traditional cattle economy endured as a significant marker of social status and wealth.[xv] As such, the requirement to pay a bride price and the associated reduction in a woman’s value after sexual assault[xvi] reinforced the commodification of women and the intrinsic link between their ownership and state security.


After discussing the impacts of South Sudan’s culture and conflict on the security of women, this paper will now demonstrate that the pervasive insecurity of women was not just a crucial predictor of rebellion but a key component in its eventual scale and intensity.

Traditional models of predicting rebellion disproportionately focus on economic development as a driver of irregular warfare.[xvii] In response to this, Goldstone[xviii] proposed a model which claimed to predict the instability of a state with over 80 per cent accuracy using four factors. These are infant mortality, the presence of armed conflict in four or more bordering states, regime type, and the presence of state-led discrimination.

As a case study, the South Sudanese civil war meets all four of these factors. Infant mortality during this period was one of the worst in the world, with 70 deaths per 1,000 live births registered in 2013.[xix] Additionally, South Sudan is a landlocked country and armed conflict was present in all six of its neighbouring states over the period of the civil war, with widespread state-led discrimination being a significant driver of its independence from Sudan.[xx] Finally, the most powerful predictor of instability onsets as per the Goldstone model, is regime type, with fully autocratic states being the most likely to resort to violence. This concept of full autocracy refers to ‘systems that combine an absence of effective contestation for chief executive with repressed or supressed political participation’,[xxi] which is an accurate description of the regime type during the civil war.

While Goldstone’s model rings true in predicting the likelihood of instability events for South Sudan, it is the position of this paper that an even greater predictor of rebellion can be found in a state’s treatment of women. Structural violence including rape, survival sex, abduction, sexual slavery, sexual mutilation and sexual torture have all been consistent features of South Sudan’s conflict, which has continued unabated despite two separate attempts at peace since 2013.[xxii]

In addition, according to the WomanStats Project[xxiii] the country had some of the most concerning statistics in relation to the physical security of women, son sex preference, trafficking of females, maternal mortality, discrepancy in education, and lack of governmental participation of women. This data supports a growing body of research which asserts that ‘values behind unequal gendered roles and power relations are instrumental in building support for and perpetuating conflict’. Furthermore, there is a direct correlation between levels of conflict and gender inequality, as well as an emerging association between gender-based violence and conflict.[xxiv] This has been strongly supported by Hudson et al. in Sex and World Peace, whose research asserts that if a policymaker or scholar had a choice between four variables (level of democracy, level of wealth, prevalence of Islamic culture or the physical security of women) to predict which would be of most concern to the international community, the most accurate predictor would be the physical security of women.[xxv]


Having understood the academic literature that underpins security studies, this paper will now offer an analysis of how an acknowledgement of the insecurity of women can strengthen models that predict the likelihood of a rebellion. Furthermore, it will show that the high prevalence of gender-based violence in South Sudan, and the association between the state’s treatment of women and normalising violence, exacerbated the fragile political climate and increased the scale and intensity of the conflict.

The ‘Triangle of Rebellion’ as proposed by Maher[xxvi] hypothesises that—similar to the fire triangle theory, in which the presence of fuel, heat and oxygen is required to create a fire—the ignition of rebellion required three key elements. These are relative deprivation, organisation, and competitive control.[xxvii] Recent research on the fire triangle has proposed the addition of a fourth element: the chemical chain reaction required to produce sufficient exothermic energy to commence ignition and sustain a fire.[xxviii]

It is the position of this paper that as a case study the South Sudanese civil war supports the Triangle of Rebellion hypothesis to an extent. However, it expands on Maher’s position and suggests that the hypothesis could also be strengthened through the addition of a fourth element: the systemic insecurity of women as an intrinsic and vital precursor to rebellions. To illustrate this, each of Maher’s three elements will be analysed alongside the situation in South Sudan, followed by discussion of how each was exacerbated by the disproportionate impact of the conflict on women.


Relative deprivation, as defined by Gurr,[xxix] relates to the perceived discrepancy between an individual’s or group’s expectations regarding the goods and conditions they believe they are rightfully entitled to, compared to their lived experience. As a theoretical concept, the presence of ‘subjective expectations of objective probabilities’[xxx] distinguishes it from feelings of deserved or legitimate disadvantage. It is further asserted that there is a strong correlation between the relative deprivation of a population and structural violence as a precursor to political unrest.[xxxi]

Moreover, research conducted by Pound et al. found that ‘evidence indicates that relative deprivation (as indexed by income inequality) is typically a more powerful predictor of variation in male violence than other socioeconomic measures such as percent below the poverty line or average income’.[xxxii]

In the South Sudanese civil war, a number of factors contributed to the fragile and unstable political climate. Economically, the country’s reliance on cash crops and finite oil revenue, in conjunction with cyclical violence and seasonal cattle raiding, put the general population at increased likelihood of financial insecurity. Politically, recent independence after decades of civil unrest under the government of Sudan created a perceived hope that the situation would improve. All of these contributed to the ideal conditions for relative deprivation to act as a precursor to civil unrest.

The application of a gender lens serves to illuminate additional sources of insecurity. South Sudan is a patrilocal bridewealth society in which women are inherited into their husbands’ tribes upon receipt of a dowry, or ‘bride price’, thus guaranteeing that all men within a clan are kin, alleviating the genetic concerns of inbreeding and mitigating in-group conflict.[xxxiii] Marrying across clan lines can also serve to strengthen relations with neighbouring tribes, which can act as a force multiplier in a country as ethnically diverse as South Sudan.

Strategically, this was best demonstrated in the case of Chief Majak Malok Akot, who famously married 76 wives across all clan lines as a method of ensuring intercommunal security within his village.[xxxiv] While this practice confers significant advantage to a group’s survival, it comes at a disproportionate cost to its female members, who in environments of limited resources are much more likely to experience differential feeding practices, access to health care and access to education.[xxxv]

Therefore the position of women within South Sudanese society was one of relative deprivation not only in relation to their male counterparts but also in relation to other comparable communities. Additionally, while men also experienced relative deprivation, it can be asserted that the impact of bride price, the reliance of women on their male counterparts for economic security, and less access to health care and education resulted in women experiencing relative deprivation at a higher rate than men.


Competitive control in the context of the Triangle of Rebellion operates on a continuum; it can relate to a lack of access to legal rights and legitimate avenues for expressing grievance, up to and including genocide.[xxxvi] More importantly, as an agent in perpetuating the likelihood of rebellion, it serves to desensitise a population to violence.

The situation in South Sudan during the civil war was unequivocally one of a suppressed state. A lack of accountability for and by military and law enforcement agents resulted in a society of impunity and one in which violence became the universal commodity. This was further exacerbated by the censorship of media outlets and the presence of a constitution which did not guarantee human rights of free speech. An example of this was observed in 2014 when President Kiir claimed that media coverage of his private life was in violation of the constitution and forbade its coverage by journalists.[xxxvii] By 2016, during what could be argued to be one of the most contentious chapters of the civil war, South Sudan was ranked 141 out of 180 countries in the Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index.[xxxviii]

The consequences of these destabilising events disproportionately affected women in many ways. Legally, a lack of representation at all levels of government and the systemic perpetration of gender-based violence resulted in most survivors being reticent to report, and even less likely to receive a fair judicial outcome.[xxxix] Furthermore, women faced additional layers of suppression due to the honour shame society that operated within South Sudan. The commodification of women, and their fluctuating value based on sexual purity, encouraged the stigmatisation of victims of sexual assault while also promoting practices which assured the virgin status of daughters, such as reduced access to education in which male teachers held the majority of positions, and the arrangement of child marriages prior to the onset of puberty.[xl]

These structural inequalities became crucial vulnerabilities during the civil war, whereby the targeted sexual attack on female civilians by uniformed combatants was used as a weapon of war.[xli] In societies such as South Sudan, the target of rape was not women or sexual desire; rape was a crime of power against men and families. In the words of Hudson et al., ‘rape shows that men could not protect the chastity of their women … and strips honour from a family’.[xlii] The resulting stigmatisation of survivors further supressed the voices of women, increasing their exposure to sexually transmitted infection and unwanted pregnancy and reducing their future economic potential. Consistent suppression of women served to reinforce a narrative that provided an opportunity for rebellion to flourish as groups perpetuated retaliatory attacks and further embedded a culture of structural inequality. This therefore further identifies the competitive control of women as a particularly useful indicator for the identification of precursors to a rebellion.


An insurgent organisation, as defined by Staniland, ‘is a group of individuals … that uses a name to designate itself, is made up of formal structures of command and control and intends to seize political power using violence.’[xliii] By definition, each of the insurgent organisations within South Sudan fits the classification of a parochial group, with fragile central processes of control, robust local processes of control, and the nature of dissent residing between factional commanders.[xliv]

Similarly to what was previously mentioned under the umbrella of competitive control, gang rape was also used as a tactic between insurgent organisations, due to most military forces remaining heavily aligned to a particular tribal faction. The result of this during the South Sudanese civil war was categorised by Pinaud[xlv] as ‘genocidal rape’, in which uniformed perpetrators carefully selected their victims based on ethnicity and the act was assigned, supervised and endorsed by commanders. The military outcomes achieved by such attacks were varied; they included encouraging cohesion in mixed tribal units, as well as the murder, displacement, dehumanisation and moral and physical destruction of target groups. Additionally, the systemic rape of an entire village significantly decreased its bridewealth capacity, reconfiguring the regional social order.[xlvi]

As has been demonstrated, while the presence of all three factors of Maher’s Triangle of Rebellion were undeniably present, the overall scale and duration of the civil war was exacerbated by the structural inequalities facing the women of South Sudan. Furthermore, this illustrates that while the ignition of a rebellion is still possible without this element, the disproportionate levels of insecurity faced by women is a crucial factor in intense and sustained conflict.


As this paper has demonstrated, the insecurity of women within South Sudan during the civil war permeated every level of society and significantly contributed to the scale and intensity of the conflict. It has been the intention of this paper to further highlight the significant lack of academic scholarship that focuses on the insecurity of women as a predictor of rebellion, and to encourage that this be a mainstreamed practice in security studies.

However, in doing so, it is equally important to acknowledge that women’s participation during conflict occurs along a continuum in the same way as it does for male combatants. To this end, this section of the paper hopes to challenge the gendered bias that pervades the literature on security studies and perpetuates the narrative of a male combatant and female victimhood.

As was demonstrated in the example of Chief Majak Malok Akot and his 76 wives, the role of women as intercommunal bridges serves to reinforce the importance of considering all actors, both passive and active, in matters of insecurity. A rare but profound example of women as active participants in a South Sudanese conflict involved a case of intercommunal violence known as the Lou-Jikany wars, in which the older women of a tribal faction instructed the single, unmarried women to stand behind frontline soldiers during the advance so that deserters would be shamed if they considered retreat.[xlvii]

Additionally, women had a role to play in perpetuating narratives of masculinity that encouraged violence and gendered social norms, as is evidenced in the lyrics of war songs which glorify bravery, reinforce the need for a father’s permission prior to marriage, and caution women against choosing a bad husband. Examples of translated lyrics include, ‘If your father is not respected, you will be like him’[xlviii] and ‘Lord hear the prayers of women, they are the ones who give birth to Kings’.[xlix]

Finally, women are key drivers in encouraging marriage practices that include abduction and violence. Bride kidnapping, or marriage by abduction, a practice most common in pastoralist communities in South Sudan, involves a man forcefully taking a woman (or, in many cases, a girl) from her home to demonstrate his intent to marry. Women are encouraged to fight back. After the abduction is complete the intended groom, accompanied by male members of his family, returns her to her parents to negotiate a bride price.[l] Notions of masculinity associated with the practice can be anecdotally evidenced by the explanation provided during an interview that ‘if I can’t trust a man to abduct me, I can’t trust him to protect me’.[li] The requirement for cattle to be a non-negotiable component of a bride price drives many men to resort to cattle raiding to be able to afford the expected dowry, which in turn fuels the cycle of retaliatory violence and revenge killings in South Sudan.[lii]

It is both a limitation and an opportunity of this paper that the South Sudanese civil war provides an extreme example of gendered roles during a conflict in which women were the vast majority of both non-combatants and casualties, with men as the predominant participants. However, what has also been made clear is that even with their limited active involvement, women made a significant contribution to military outcomes. This is a trend that is not isolated to South Sudan, and it acts as a model to demonstrate that the insecurity of women is a fundamental predictor of rebellion globally. Other examples of the roles women have played in irregular warfare can be found in their involvement in cadres during Nepal’s Maoist Rebellion,[liii] the roles of female recruits in ISIS[liv]  and the impact of female Mayors in Columbia in reducing guerrilla attacks,[lv] to name a few. 


The evidence presented in this paper offers a case study through which predictors of rebellion can be better understood. Through its assessment of two prominent theoretical frameworks, several conclusions can be drawn from this analysis. The first is that structural inequalities in social factors such as gender and clan line are powerful indicators of precursors to violence and are closely related to the scale and intensity of a conflict. Additionally, even in contexts in which women are not active participants in a conflict, they can have an influential role in enforcing gender norms, desensitising a population to violence and promoting notions of masculinity. Finally, this paper provides a context in which the literature of two important but generally separate fields—that of the relationship between gender and insecurity, and that of predictors of rebellion—can be combined to strengthen the existing framework.

This article is one essay from the Irregular Warfare Essay Collection.


[i] Ted Gurr, Why Men Rebel (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970), pp. 22–58.

[ii] J Goldstone, R Bates, D Epstein, T Gurr, M Lustik, M Marshall, J Ulfelder and M Woodward, ‘A Global Model for Forecasting Political Instability’, American Journal of Political Science, vol. 54, no. 1 (2010), pp. 190–208.

[iii] Andrew Maher, ‘Precursors to Violence’ (Online presentation, University of New South Wales, 20 July 2020).

[iv] Mayer Eichler, ‘Gendered Militarism’, in Routledge Handbook of Gender and Security (Routledge, 2018), p. 160.

[v] C Koos and T Gutschke, ‘South Sudan’s Newest War: When Two Old Men Divide a Nation’, GIGA Focus, 2 May 2014.

[vi] Peter Martell, First Raise a Flag: How South Sudan Won the Longest War But Lost the Peace (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019); Clemence Pinaud, ‘Patterns of Genocidal Rape in South Sudan’, Democracy in Africa, 15 October 2020.

[vii] Edward Thomas, South Sudan: A Slow Liberation (Zed Books, 2015).

[viii] G Obulutsa, ‘Study Estimates 190,000 People Killed in South Sudan’s Civil War’, Reuters, 13 October 2020.

[ix] Pinaud, 2020.

[x] B Sawe, ‘Ethnic Groups Of South Sudan’, WorldAtlas, 25 April 2017.

[xi] International Rescue Committee, ‘The Five Toughest Places in the World to Be a Woman Today’, 7 December 2017, at: (accessed 15 October 2020); Global Women’s Institute, ‘No Safe Place: A Lifetime of Violence for Conflict Affected Women and Girls in South Sudan’, at: (accessed 13 October 2020).

[xii] Martell, 2019; Pinaud, 2020.

[xiii] United Nations, ‘South Sudan Emergency Session’, 14 December 2016, at: (accessed 13 October 2020).

[xiv] S Kane, M Rial, A Matere, M Dieleman, J Broerse and M Kok, ‘Gender Relations and Women’s Reproductive Health in South Sudan’, Global Health Action, vol. 9, no. 1 (2016), pp. 33–47.

[xv] Global Women’s Institute, ‘No Safe Place’.

[xvi] Valerie Hudson, Bonnie Ballif-Spanvill, Mary Caprioli and Chad F Emmett, Sex and World Peace (Columbia University Press, 2012).

[xvii] P Collier and A Hoeffler, ‘On the Incidence of Civil War in Africa’, Journal of Conflict Resolution, vol. 46, no. 1 (2002), pp. 13–28; P Collier and A Hoeffler, ‘Greed and Grievance in Civil Wars’, Oxford Economic Papers New Series, vol. 56, no. 4 (2004), pp. 563­–595.

[xviii] Goldstone et al., 2010, pp. 190–208.

[xix] UNICEF, ‘Maternal Mortality Ratio’, at: (accessed 13 October 2020).

[xx] Paul Tompkins and Nathan Bos (eds), Human Factor Considerations of Undergrounds in Insurgencies, 2nd Edition, Assessing Revolutionary and Insurgent Strategies Project (United States Army Special Operations Command, 2013).

[xxi] Goldstone et al., 2010, pp. 190–208.

[xxii] A Luedke, The Commodification of Women and Girls in South Sudan: Increased Risks and Continued Violence (London: London School of Economics and Political Science, 2019).

[xxiii] Hudson et al., 2012, pp. 138–139.

[xxiv] Jenny Birchall, ‘Gender as a Causal Factor in Conflict’, 28 February 2019, South Sudan Peace Portal, at:  (accessed 14 October 2020).

[xxv] Hudson et al., 2012, p. 121.

[xxvi] Maher, 2020.

[xxvii] Ibid.

[xxviii] T Panchal, ‘Science of Fire Tetrahedron and Chain Reaction of Fire Mechanism’, Fire Engineer, vol. 39, no. 2 (2014), pp. 7–9.

[xxix] Gurr, 1970, pp. 22–58.

[xxx] Richard Jenkins, ‘Pierre Bourdieu and the Reproduction of Determinism’, Sociology, vol. 16, no. 2 (1982) pp. 270–281.

[xxxi] Paul Farmer, ‘Pathologies of Power: Health, Human Rights, and the New War on the Poor’, North American Dialogue, vol. 6, no. 1 (2003), pp. 1–4.

[xxxii] N Pound, M Daly and M Wilson, ‘There’s No Contest: Human Sex Differences are Sexually Selected’, Behavioral and Brain Sciences, vol. 32, no. 3–4 (2009), pp. 286–287.

[xxxiii] Hudson et al., 2012, p. 11.

[xxxiv] T Crampton, ‘1 Husband, 76 Wives’, New York Times, 24 December 2003.

[xxxv] Hudson et al., 2012, p. 11.

[xxxvi] Maher, 2020.

[xxxvii] Reporters Sans Frontieres, ‘The Situation of Media Freedom in South Sudan’, 16 March 2016, report to Human Rights Council, Universal Periodic Review, October­–November 2016.

[xxxviii] Ibid.

[xxxix] Hudson et al., 2012.

[xl] Ibid., p. 11.

[xli] Pinaud, 2020.

[xlii] Hudson et al., 2012, p. 10.

[xliii] Paul Staniland, Networks of Rebellion: Explaining Insurgent Cohesion and Collapse (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2014).

[xliv] Ibid.

[xlv] Pinaud, 2020.

[xlvi] Ibid.

[xlvii] Lauren Hutton, interview with author, September 2020.

[xlviii] Deng Jok Ajuoong, ‘Deng Jok Ajuoong Part 1’ (song), 5 March 2010, at: (accessed 18 October 2020).

[xlix] Elizabeth Deng, ‘Nyanateer Mading Part 1’ (song), 20 October 2011, at: (accessed 18 October 2020).

[l] Philip Aleu, ‘Risking One’s Life to Be Able to Marry’, Development and Cooperation, 26 June 2016, at: (accessed 17 October 2020).

[li] Hutton, interview with author.

[lii] E Buchanan, Born to be Married: Addressing Early and Forced Marriage in Nyal, South Sudan (Oxfam International, February 2019).

[liii] Mandira Sharma and Dinesh Prasain, ‘Gender Dimension of the People’s War: Some reflections on the experiences of rural women,’ in Himalayan People’s War: Nepal’s Maoist Rebellion, Michael Hutt (ed.), (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2004).

[liv] Louisa Tarras-Wahlberg, ‘Seven promises of ISIS to its female recruits’, International Centre for Violent Extremism, 9 January 2016 (accessed 11 September 2021).

[lv] Francisco Eslava, ‘Conflict and Gender Leadership: Female Mayors in Colombia’, September 30, 2020 (accessed 10 September 2021).

The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

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