An underrecognized, but far too prominent, form of gender-based violence which affects girls as young as 10, is child marriage. In South Sudan it is seen as a way for families to escape poverty. Ironically – it does the opposite, trapping girls in a cycle of poverty and violence, and preventing the entire nation from achieving economic and social growth and prosperity.
Child marriage is any legal or customary union involving a person below the age of 18. it is a human rights violation on a vast scale. Child marriage puts girls and women at risk of sexual, physical, and psychological violence, and corresponding negative consequences for the rest of their lives. According to UNICEF, the proportion of women married as children worldwide has decreased over the past decade from 1 in 4 to 1 in 5. Although this progress is notable, it is too slow. South Sudan is one of the countries in the world where child marriage is alarmingly common. According to civil society organization Girls Not Brides, the prevalence rate is 52%, even though legally the marriage age is 18.
The prevalence of Child Marriage in South Sudan is steeped in tradition and custom. But it also persists for economic reasons. Child marriage is deeply intertwined with the social and economic fabric of South Sudan. Having daughters is perceived among some communities as a way to get out of poverty. Dowry payments range from 100 cows to 300 cows in some communities, or a negotiated monetary sum in others. Dowry payments essentially commodify girls and makes them into prey. Girls as young as 12 years old can be married to men as old as 60, who may already have several wives, as long as they have the resources to pay the dowry.
This system, while seen as a way to escape poverty by male family members, entraps women in a cycle of poverty which is overwhelmingly difficult to escape. Girls are married off so young that they don’t have the means or the knowledge to escape. As girls are seen as commodities, they rarely get an education. UNICEF estimates that as many as 2/3 of girls can’t read. Education is seen as an unnecessary expense. As such, women and girls lack skills and education, and event the ability to seek information, to be self-sufficient, thus increasing their dependency on their husbands. Moreover, domestic violence is so steeped in the culture, that should a girl somehow make it out, her mother will likely face violence.
Child marriage is driven by power imbalance, gender inequality, negative cultural norms and beliefs that consider girls inferior to boys. Women and girls in South Sudan are considered second class citizens at best, and as property at worst, with the specific roles as wives and mothers.
Although the government of South Sudan has put in place policies and laws to address the issue, this is not enough. The South Sudan Child Act in 2008, the South Sudan National Action Plan 2015-2020, and the gender-based violence court were all important steps, but the phenomenon continues because there are multiple and interacting factors that require change at every level.
Fighting these practices requires all relevant government ministries, functional institutions to implement gender responsive policies and empowerment programs. Effort needs to be put into eradicating negative social and cultural norms, beliefs, and attitudes, and providing equitable access to basic social services. Girls and boys need to be empowered with information, knowledge, and skills to enable them to recognize child marriage and early pregnancy as a gross violation of their rights. Civil society organizations supporting children to escape these arrangements need to be supported. Mitigating actions to educate and mobilize parents and community members to change dominant thinking and harmful social norms, and to understand that ending these practices, investing in education and skills building, is what will bring them out of poverty, is crucial.
Child marriage is an enemy not only to gender equality. It is also an enemy to economic growth and development. Getting rid of it, increases women’s and girls’ contributions to socio-economic, cultural, and political spaces, thus benefitting everyone.
Written By Amer Ruben Nhial
Amer Nhial is a committed social worker who finds purpose in gender issues and provides psychosocial support and counselling to survivors of GBV/SGBV/CRSV in South Sudan.
Amer has engaged in broader women’s networks for advancing the Women Peace Security (WPS), Agenda, whose advocacy has contributed to ratifying multiple international frameworks within WPS and the most recent regional legal instrument Maputo protocol. Currently, she is a member of SIHA Network, advocating for the review of Family Bill and enactment of Anti-GBV bill.
Amer loves exploring different cultures, healing herself through yoga, playing basketball and spending time with her family.