The happiest or saddest day of her life: Child marriage in South Sudan

Written by Emilia Schiefhaler

South Sudan is one of Africa’s most problematic countries when it comes to child marriage. Most girls get married in South Sudan between the ages of 15 and 19.(2) According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), 52% of girls in South Sudan get married before their eighteenth birthday.(3) This practice does not only violate several fundamental rights of the child, but also creates other severe and long-lasting consequences. High maternal mortality rates, domestic violence, and a lack of access to school are only some of the repercussions on young girls.(4)

This CAI paper examines the different economic and cultural aspects behind the practice of child marriage in South Sudan. The paper discusses the particular situation of child brides before and after the marriage ceremony. It then explains the consequences that child marriage has for young girls and the reasons why it should be abolished. Lastly, the paper gives examples of what has been done to fight child marriage, both from a national and international perspective, including the use of legal instruments and international conventions, and gives suggestions of what can be done in the future in order to eradicate this practice.

The economic and cultural rationale behind child marriage

The idea of child marriage might be a bizarre concept for those who believe in girls finishing at least their high school education. However, in many countries, including South Sudan, there are economic and cultural reasons that seem to make child marriage much more acceptable. 

Primarily, poverty drives child marriage. Many parents see their daughter as a form of wealth. By marrying their daughter off, they will receive dowry payments.(5) This payment can be economic, in the form of money, or, as in most agricultural communities, families receive cattle or other sorts of agricultural goods in exchange for their daughters.(6) Even though this goes completely against several human rights laws and potentially puts the girl in a terrible and dangerous situation, from the parents’ perspective it is a resource to obtain food and an opportunity to stay out of poverty. Many times, the parents even believe that giving their daughter away to a wealthier man is helping her as well.(7)

Culturally, in South Sudan, many girls are married early because the parents suspect that they are ready to have sexual intercourse.(8) South Sudan is a country where tradition and customs are very important and having pre-marital sex would mean putting shame on the family, especially if this leads to pregnancies.(9) Therefore, many parents believe that if their daughters marry young, they will only have sexual intercourse and children with their husband. This not only secures a good family reputation, but it also increases the price of the dowry.

Impact of marriage on the child bride

The first negative impact of child marriage is the extraction of the bride from any form of further education; once she is married she becomes a wife and, in the patriarchal South Sudanese society, takes care of the house and children. Currently, only about 500 female students complete primary school each year, yet one out of every five adolescent girls has had at least one child.(10) This happens because parents do not value education for their daughters in the same way as they do for their sons. For the parents, having to pay for school for a girl becomes an economic burden that can be erased if she gets married and dowry gets paid.(11) Education is also seen as a threat by many parents as they believe that if a girl is well educated, she will not make a good wife for her future husband.(12)

The second impact is an increased exposure to violence. This violence is twofold. Firstly, it can happen at the hands of the husband within the new marriage. A report published by the World Health Organisation (WHO) found that “younger women with lower levels of education face a higher risk of physical or sexual violence at the hands of their partner.”(13) In the case of child marriage, the age difference between the bride and her husband-to-be is also a major factor. Because of the fact that the girls are much younger and less experienced than their husbands, child brides find that their limited negotiation abilities, lack of knowledge about sex, and lack of power and authority, puts them in a weak position.(14) These are all factors that lead to the husband abusing his position of power by using violence. Secondly, many girls resist being married, which increases the chance of violence from their families. Contrary to the parents’ decision, many girls feel that they are not ready to be married. If the girls resist, they may be physically abused and perhaps even held in captivity or murdered.(15)

The third impact is increased health problems. Once they get married, many child brides fall pregnant quite quickly, while still in their early teenage years. Several reproductive studies “show that young women face greater risk in pregnancy and child birth … including life-threatening obstructed labour due to their small pelvises and immature bodies.”(16) This is risky in any case where ‘children’ are having babies, particularly because of the under-developed nature of hospitals and pre- and post-natal health care in South Sudan.(17)

What has been done to change the current situation? 

In terms of solutions to child marriage in South Sudan, governmental policy reforms are of principal importance. But, there are several alternative avenues that have been pursued and, while they have not changed the situation drastically, they have helped to improve it.

The first example comes from a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that works by empowering women in South Sudan.(18) This particular NGO specialises in educating girls by showing them what rights they have and how speaking up can sometimes improve their situations.(19) The method this NGO employs is school visits with the use of drama classes, as these classes help the girls act out scenarios in ways that can be applied in real life.(20) However, educating the girls is not enough if the parents are not educated alongside their children, ensuring that big changes will not be possible. Yet, it remains a step in the right direction.

Another example of grassroots change can be seen in Matanggai Primary School of Rumbek Central County in the Lakes State.(21) This school has established so-called ‘child clubs’ which promote healthy behaviour in children by focusing on sanitation, hygiene and health aspects in general.(22) Thanks to the initiative of this school, and its coordinated work with both UNICEF and the Ministry of Social Development, the Lakes State are the “first to implement the Communication Strategy for the Prevention of Child Marriage in South Sudan.”(23) Again, even though this is only a small initiative, it is the start of greater changes in the future.

Recommendations and concluding thoughts

In the past couple of years, South Sudan has taken steps to try and improve the situation of child marriage. This is especially notable given that South Sudan is a country that achieved its independence only recently, in July 2011. However, there are still improvements to the legal, social and cultural regulation of child marriage that must be made.

Legally, it is essential that the Government of South Sudan establishes and ratifies relevant legislation, treaties and conventions, and makes an effort to enforce them. It is of great importance to introduce a minimum age for marriage. Even though 18 is the most common age, it might be more reliable to set a younger age, such as 16, in order to make the process more in line with tradition and custom, and therefore more acceptable to the people. Nevertheless, the goal should be to establish 18 as the minimum age to marry. This would automatically make marriages with girls under 18 illegal and the situation would become easier to control, allowing for the people involved in child marriage to be prosecuted. South Sudan must also look to ratify two essential international conventions that are related to this subject: The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), and The Convention on the Rights and the Welfare of the Child (CRC).(24) Even though these might not bring an immediate effect or solution to the problem, ratifying them shows the people of South Sudan that the government is interested in changing the situation of child brides.

Socially, education, as a tool to avoid and fight child marriage, is an area that can be further developed. It is essential to start campaigns that show both the girls and their parents how important education is. By slowly introducing campaigns like this, higher education could be defended and parents would realise that this might present an even more advantageous option than marriage. On a policy level, it is essential that the Ministry of Education develops a plan that specifically deals with education for girls and women. Further, the government could intervene by establishing a law that makes education compulsory up to a certain age for both boys and girls. Together with education, it is important to raise awareness of facilities that girls can contact if in fear of being forced into marriage by their parents. Educating them about which options they have available and where they can go is crucial. Tied to this, the Government of South Sudan must strengthen the facilities that are available for girls who decide to go against being married. This can be done by creating centres or other forms of accommodation where young girls can go, and by trying to make access to help easier for these girls.

Lastly, the cultural conception of domestic violence needs to be addressed. The first problem that must be addressed in this regard is the lack of a specific law that addresses violence against women in South Sudan.(25) Even though the penal code does criminalise assault and rape, it goes into no specifics and completely ignores the occurrences of rape that happen within a marriage.(26) Therefore, the first thing would be to make a specific law or reform the penal code in a way that crimes against women, including all forms of violence, become criminal behaviour that can be punished. Also, as mentioned in all of the above cases, it would be essential to establish centres where women who have been abused could go to seek help. Additionally, and of benefit to the women, would be the provision of legal advice and aid so they can take their perpetrators to court.

As it can be seen, many suggestions can be made in order to incentivise change in how child marriage is handled in South Sudan today. Even though most initiatives seem drastic, expensive and labour-intensive, examples have been seen of how small steps can lead the way; steps that may initialise change and, slowly but surely, realise the eradication of child marriage.

NOTES:

(1) Contact Emilia Schiefthaler through Consultancy Africa Intelligence’s Rights in Focus Unit (rights.focus@consultancyafrica.com). This CAI discussion paper was developed with the assistance of Laura Clarke and was edited by Kate Morgan. 
(2) ‘South Sudan: End widespread child marriage’, Human Rights Watch, 7 March 2013,http://www.hrw.org
(3) ‘Percentage of women aged 20–24 who were first married/in union before the age of 18’, United Nations Child Fund (UNICEF), January 2013, http://www.childinfo.org
(4) ‘South Sudan: End widespread child marriage’, Human Rights Watch, 7 March 2013,http://www.hrw.org
(5) Ibid. 
(6) ‘This old man can feed us, you will marry him’, Human Rights Watch, March 2013,http://www.hrw.org
(7) Ibid. 
(8) ‘South Sudan: End widespread child marriage’, Human Rights Watch, 7 March 2013,http://www.hrw.org.  
(9) ‘This old man can feed us, you will marry him’, Human Rights Watch, March 2013,http://www.hrw.org
(10) ‘Southern Sudan: Early marriage threatens girls education’, United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), 25 May 2012, http://www.unicef.org
(11) ‘This old man can feed us, you will marry him’, Human Rights Watch, March 2013,http://www.hrw.org
(12) Ibid. 
(13) Ibid. 
(14) Ibid. 
(15) Ibid. 
(16) ‘South Sudan: End widespread child marriage’, Human Rights Watch, 7 March 2013,http://www.hrw.org
(17) Ibid. 
(18) Rwakaringi, M.D., ‘South Sudan NGO uses drama to fight child marriage’, Voice of America, 27 March 2013, http://www.voanews.com.  
(19) Ibid. 
(20) Ibid. 
(21) Laki, K.S. and Shrestha, S., ‘South Sudan: A role model for girls against child marriage in Lakes State’, United Nations Childrem’s Fund (UNICEF), 1 November 2012, http://www.unicef.org
(22) Ibid. 
(23) Ibid. 
(24) ‘South Sudan: End widespread child marriage’, Human Rights Watch, 7 March 2013,http://www.hrw.org
(25) ‘This old man can feed us, you will marry him’, Human Rights Watch, March 2013,http://www.hrw.org
(26) Ibid.

 

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Intelligence Media Service, Monitors and Analyzes Extremists’ activities, including and not limited to: The Muslim Brotherhood, Kurdish Terrorism, Syrian Politics, Jabhet Al-Nusra, Hezbollah, Cyber Crime, and Taliban activities in Syria. Well known for her deep knowledge on Terrorism. Open Source Exploitation expert in the discovery, collection, and assessment of foreign-based publicly available information, also known as Open Source Intelligence (OSINT), HIMNT
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