I did not know him before. I did not love him. I told my family, “I don’t want this man.” My people said, “This old man can feed us, you will marry him.”
—Atong G., 16, forced to marry a 50-year-old man in July 2011
Akech B. loved to study and dreamed of becoming a nurse. But when she was 14, her uncle who was raising her, told her she was too old for school. He forced her to leave school and told her that she had to marry a man whom Akech described as old, gray-haired, and married to another woman with whom he had several children.
Akech begged her uncle to allow her to continue her education. He refused. “Girls are born so that people can eat. All I want is to get my dowry,” he told her. The man paid 75 cows for Akech, which signified that the marriage had taken place. She tried to resist, but her male cousins beat her severely, accused her of dishonoring her family, and forced her to go to the man’s house.
Akech fled and hid with a friend. Her uncle found her and took her to prison, where he told officials that she had run away from her husband and needed to be taught a lesson. They imprisoned her for a night. When her cousins came for her they beat her so badly that she could hardly walk. Then they took her back to her husband.
After that, Akech felt that she had no choice, but to stay.
South Sudanese women face myriad hardships and obstacles in their daily lives, including high levels of poverty, low levels of literacy, pronounced gender gaps in education, and the highest maternal mortality rate in the world—estimated at 2,054 deaths per 100,000 live births.
For women and girls like Akech, these hardships are all too often compounded by a serious human rights violation: child marriage. Close to half (48 percent) of South Sudanese girls between 15 and 19 are married, according to the 2006 Sudan Household Health Survey. Some are as young as 12 when they are married.
Many South Sudanese communities see child marriage as being in the best interests of girls and their families, and an important way for families to access much-needed assets, such as cattle, money, and other gifts via the traditional practice of transferring wealth through the payment of dowries. It is also viewed as a way to protect girls from pre-marital sex and unwanted pregnancy that undermines family honor and decreases the amount of dowry a family may receive. For some girls, marriage may also be the only way to escape poverty or violence in the home.
Much of the research on child marriage in South Sudan has focused on the physical impact it has on girls' and women's bodies. This report examines this problem, and reinforces studies by experts and women’s rights groups in South Sudan that indicate that child marriage has a significant negative impact on women and girl’s realization of key human rights, including their rights to health and education, physical integrity and the right to marry only when they are able and willing to give their free consent.
Based on extensive interviews with 87 girls and women in three states between March and October 2012—and with government officials, traditional leaders, health care workers, legal and women’s rights experts, teachers, prison officials, and NGO, UN, and donor representatives—this report describes the severe consequences of this practice, and the risks that women and girls face when they resist or try to leave these marriages. It also examines the near total lack of protection for victims of child marriage and the many obstacles they face in attempting to find redress.
South Sudan has taken some steps since it gained autonomy from Sudan in 2005 and independence in 2011, to address women’s rights. These include calls by President Salva Kiir Mayardit for women to participate in all spheres of life and the elimination of harmful traditions that limit their progress, and promises by the government and its international development partners to make gender equality a cornerstone of the country’s development agenda.
There have been actions to tackle child marriage: provisions in the Transitional Constitution—which entered into force at South Sudan’s independence in 2011—guaranteeing women and girls the right to consent to marriage; penal code provisions criminalizing “kidnapping or abducting a woman to compel her to get married”; and the 2008 Child Act provisions that protect children under 18 from early and forced marriages and guarantee them the right to non-discrimination, health, education, life, survival and development, an opinion, and protection from torture, degrading treatment, and abuse. Many girls and women also benefit from an alternative education system that allows pregnant girls and mothers and individuals who have not had access to formal education or who have dropped out, to continue school.
However, the report finds that these measures alone are not enough, and are often stymied by a range of problems and limitations. These include gaps in existing laws, failure to understand and implement existing policies and legislation, poor coordination among government ministries responsible for protecting children from abuse, and an absence of guidelines about how they should address child marriage cases. Systemic problems in the justice system, such as lack of infrastructure, resources, and well-trained personnel, compound the inability of women and girls to obtain justice for gender-based crimes—including child and forced marriages—or to seek redress against those who have forced them to marry without their consent.
There are also gaps in the Transitional Constitution, Penal Code, and Child Act related to this harmful practice—including no minimum age of marriage —and no systematic or comprehensive programs to address the root causes of child marriage at the community level. The Ministry of Gender, Child and Social Welfare finalized a Gender Policy in 2012 that would go some way to addressing many of these gaps, and proposes developing a National Plan of Action, new laws to tackle sexual and gender based violence, and establishing ‘safe centres’ for trauma counseling of victims. However, it remains largely unimplemented at this writing.
Many girls and women are not aware of their rights under the law to seek help, or do not know where to look for assistance other than their own families or community elders, who often fail them. The absence of statutory family legislation means that most matters relating to marriage, divorce, child custody, maintenance payments and domestic violence are handled by customary courts that frequently discriminate against women and girls. Widespread discriminatory attitudes that see women as second class citizens perpetuate the practice. Moreover South Sudan does not have sufficient or specialized safe spaces to offer protection to victims of forced marriage and other gender-related abuses.
As a result of these failures and inadequacies, many women and girls continue to struggle with the often devastating and long-lasting consequences of child marriage. Girls who marry young are removed from school, denying them the education needed to provide for themselves and their families. Reproductive health studies show that young women face greater risks in pregnancy and child birth than older women, including life-threatening obstructed labour due to their smaller pelvises and immature bodies—problems accentuated by South Sudan’s limited prenatal and postnatal healthcare services. Because early marriage limits young married girls’ knowledge and skills, resources, social support networks, mobility and autonomy, they often have little power in relation to their husband or his family, including pressing for family planning and contraception.
Today, there are a number of small ongoing initiatives implemented or funded by local and international organizations, donors, and the government that address aspects of child marriage. However, these efforts are sporadic, uncoordinated, and limited in scope.
Fortunately, child marriage is an area where concrete reforms are possible, even considering the current challenges facing the new country. Moreover, it is an area in which reforms are vital because the practice constrains the social, educational, health, security, and economic progress of women and girls, their families, and their communities. As a result, failure to combat child marriage is likely to have serious implications for the future development of South Sudan.
The government of South Sudan should take immediate and long-term steps to protect girls from child and forced marriage and ensure the fulfillment of their human rights. While resource constraints are a major concern, some reforms can be made without a large investment, and these should be implemented quickly. Others that may be costly are crucial components of ensuring that the government meets its obligations to uphold rather than violate girls’ and women’s human rights.
The government, with the support of South Sudan’s development partners, should:
- Develop and implement a comprehensive national action plan to prevent and address the consequences of child marriage;
- Develop and implement guidelines on how national and state level government ministries and agencies should address child marriage cases;
- Conduct training for relevant government and law enforcement officials about the legal rights of girls under the Child Act, particularly their right to be protected from child marriage;
- Carry out a nationwide awareness-raising campaign to inform the public about the harms caused by child marriage;
- Work toward comprehensive reform of South Sudan’s laws on marriage, separation, divorce, and related matters; and
- Take programmatic and policy measures to ensure that girls and women who seek help from authorities for forced marriages can get it.