The government of South Sudan should increase efforts to protect girls from child marriage, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today, on the eve of International Women's Day. The country's widespread child marriage exacerbates South Sudan's pronounced gender gaps in school enrollment, contributes to soaring maternal mortality rates, and violates the right of girls to be free from violence, and to marry only when they are able and willing to give their free consent.
According to government statistics, close to half (48 percent) of South Sudanese girls between 15 and 19 are married, with some marrying as young as age 12.
The 95-page report, "'This Old Man Can Feed Us, You Will Marry Him:' Child and Forced Marriage in South Sudan," documents the consequences of child marriage, the near total lack of protection for victims who try to resist marriage or leave abusive marriages, and the many obstacles they face in accessing mechanisms of redress. It is based on interviews with 87 girls and women in Central Equatoria, Western Equatoria, and Jonglei states, as well as with government officials, traditional leaders, health care workers, legal and women's rights experts, teachers, prison officials, and representatives of nongovernmental organizations, the United Nations, and donor organizations.
"Girls who have the courage to refuse early marriages are in dire need of protection, support, and education," said Liesl Gerntholtz, women's rights director at Human Rights Watch. "The South Sudan government must make sure that there is a coordinated government response to cases of child marriage and more training for police and prosecutors on the right of girls to protection."
Girls told Human Rights Watch of being pressured to marry by family members anxious to receive dowry payments, or because they were suspected of pre-marital sex. One girl, Ageer M. told Human Rights Watch, "I refused him but they beat me badly and took me by force to him. The man forced me to have sex with him so I had to stay there." Few girls in South Sudan know they have the right to seek help, while girls who try to resist early and forced marriages suffer brutal consequences at the hands of their families - including verbal abuse and physical assault, and sometimes even murder.
The Human Rights Watch report tells the story of a 17-year-old girl studying in Lakes State whose father tried to force her to marry an old man who had offered a dowry of 200 cows to her family. The girl refused and said, "I don't know this man. I have never spoken to him, and he is not my age." The girl was taken to a nearby forest, tied to a tree and beaten until she died.
The report recommends that the government clearly set 18 as the minimum age for marriage; ratify the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the Convention on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (CRC), and other human rights treaties; and pass comprehensive family legislation on marriage, separation, and divorce.
Child marriage disrupts or ends a girl's education, increases her risk of violence and abuse, and jeopardizes her health. Failure to combat child marriage is also likely to have serious implications for the future development of South Sudan, Human Rights Watch said. It constrains the education, health, security, and economic progress of women and girls, their families, and their communities.
"Child marriage frequently interrupts girls' education - or deprives them of it altogether," Gerntholtz said.
Girls and women interviewed said that dreams of continuing school to become accountants, teachers, or doctors were cut short when they married. Those who dropped out of school found it difficult to continue after marriage or becoming pregnant.
Government statistics for 2011 show that only 39 percent of primary school students and 30 percent of secondary students are female.
Child marriage also puts girls at greater risk of death or ill-health because of early pregnancy and childbirth. 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. Human Rights Watch called on the South Sudanese government, with the support of its development partners, to:
Develop and implement a comprehensive national action plan to prevent and address the consequences of child marriage;
Developand implement guidelines on how national and state level government ministries and agencies should handle 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 to fight forced marriages can receive it.
Worldwide, some 14 million girls are married before their 18thbirthday every year. A 2012 report by UNICEF shows that around one in three women aged 20-24 years were married before they reached 18 years of age, and around 11 percent entered into marriage before 15 years of age. Child marriage occurs in practically every region of the world but occurs at higher rates in South Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin America and the Caribbean.
"The global problem of child marriage strips women and girls of their livelihoods and creates a high risk of violence," Gerntholtz said. "South Sudan's government must make good on its pledges of gender equality by putting human rights of women and girls at the heart of its development agenda."
"This man went to my uncles and paid a dowry of 80 cows. I resisted the marriage. They threatened me. They said, 'If you want your siblings to be taken care of, you will marry this man.' I said he is too old for me. They said, 'You will marry this old man whether you like it or not because he has given us something to eat.' They beat me so badly. They also beat my mother because she was against the marriage."
-Aguet N., Bor County, March 15, 2012. Aguet, who married in 2003 at the age of 15, told Human Rights Watch that she was in school in class five and wanted to finish her education, but her uncles beat her and her mother to force her to marry a 75-year-old man.
"My father refused me to go to school. He said it is a waste of money to educate a girl. He said marriage will bring me respect in the community. Now I have grown up and I know that this is not true. I cannot get work to support my children and I see girls who have some education can get jobs."
-Mary K., Yambio County, March 7, 2012
"The man I loved did not have cows and my uncles rejected him. My husband paid 120 cows.... I refused him but they beat me badly and took me by force to him. The man forced me to have sex with him so I had to stay there."
-Ageer M., Bor County, March 15, 2012
"If you decide to delay your daughter's marriage, she may get pregnant. The man may not pay many cows. That is why we marry them early. There is a big fear of girls getting pregnant out of wedlock."
-Yar B., Bor County, March 15, 2012
"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., Bor County, March 15, 2012. Atong was forced to marry a 50-year-old man in July 2011.