1 August 2013

Africa: Child Brides Die Young

Emelda Juan has packed a lifetime into less than two decades.

The daughter of subsistence farmers, she grew up in a village in southern South Sudan, a hilly and sparsely forested area. At 14, her parents sold her for seven cows to a man more than twice her age, a 37-year-old village shopkeeper.

She then got pregnant. After her husband could not look after her and their baby girl, she moved to the capital, Juba.

Now 16, Ms Juan is a single mother without an education, earning her living as a house cleaner, on wages that barely feed her and her 11-month-old daughter, Mercy-Emelda. "I had to stay at home to look after my younger brothers but my parents had something else in mind for me and here I am now," she said, shaking her shoulders while her infant wailed.

Ms Juan's mother and father are like many other parents in the developing world, especially Africa, who consider their daughters second-class citizens and see them as potential sources of income. They sell their daughters in marriage, often before their 18th birthday and often against their will.

In so doing, they deprive their daughters of an education, a chance to learn skills and earn an income. They condemn their daughters to a life of poor health, often filled with violence. In addition to schooling, they are denied their reproductive rights, freedom of movement, and the right to consensual marriage.

In the developing world, one in seven girls is married before her 15th birthday - some as young as eight or nine, according to a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report released in March this year.

In Central and West Africa, two out of five girls are married under the age of 18. Like Ms Juan, most of these girls are poor, uneducated and come from rural areas, according to the report.

Of the world's ten countries with the highest prevalence of child marriage, nine are in Africa: Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Chad, Guinea, Malawi, Mali, Mozambique, Niger and South Sudan, according to UNICEF, the UN children's agency. The tenth country is Bangladesh.

In South Sudan, 42% of women were married before their 18th birthday, according to the 2010 South Sudan Household Health Survey. UNICEF reported in January this year that 52% of women between the ages of 20 and 24 in South Sudan were married before 18.

Many communities in South Sudan see child marriage as a way to protect girls from pre-marital sex and unwanted pregnancy, which tarnish a family's honour and may diminish the value of a future dowry.

The Sudan Tribune is filled with horror stories of girls rebelling against these forced marriages. For example, Nyikada Ngoki, 17, from Lakes state in central South Sudan, shot herself dead in October 2010 after a forced marriage.

Akoey Barach, 18, from violence-torn Jonglei in eastern South Sudan, did not want to marry an old but rich man who owned many cows. Instead, she eloped with her poor but young boyfriend. In February 2011, her parents beat her to death with sticks.

The practice of selling girls is more common in the cattle-keeping communities of South Sudan. But it is also practised by farmers such as the Balanda tribe in South Sudan's north-western state of Western Bahr El Ghazal.

They consider a girl marriageable at the age of 13, when girls begin to menstruate, said Alexander Lupo, a clan leader in the Darajat residential area of Wau, the state's capital.

"If anybody is found playing around with her there will be trouble," he added. It is not uncommon to see 14-year-old girls at the village market with babies strapped on their backs in kitenge fabric, colourful wax-print cloth.

Ms Juan's parents scrape by on $385 a year growing cassava and groundnuts in a small village about 60km south-west of Juba.

After three years of primary school, Ms Juan dropped out to marry and has since forgotten how to read. Her father used the money from the sale of her dowry's seven cows, about $4,900, to pay for the school fees of her three younger brothers.

South Sudan does not keep records on the number of girls who drop out of school due to pregnancy or early marriage, but most experts agree that it must be high.

"Child marriages account for the high illiteracy rates in the country as only 6% of girls complete the full primary school cycles," said Dr Priscilla Nyang, South Sudan's deputy minister of gender, child and social welfare.

Research shows that a lack of education condemns girls and their future children to poverty. An analysis by the World Bank office in South Sudan released on April 11th this year criticised the government for not committing enough of its budget to education.

In 2011 the government allocated 4% of its total budget of 5.9 billion South Sudanese pounds ($1.9 billion) to education.

However, only about half of the allocation was actually disbursed. Kimo Adiebo, an economist at the World Bank, said this small expenditure also led to high illiteracy and curbed girls' chances of finding work.

Child marriages not only deprive girls of schooling but also destroy their health. Complications related to pregnancy and childbirth are the main cause of death among adolescent girls aged 15 - 19 in developing countries, according to the HRW report.

"Girls aged 15 to 20 are twice as likely to die in childbirth as those in their 20s, and girls under the age of 15 are five times as likely to die," HRW reported.

South Sudan has the world's highest maternal mortality rate (Estonia the world's lowest), with about 2,054 deaths per 100,000 live births, according to its health ministry.

The UN Development Programme (UNDP) reported in 2012 that a woman in South Sudan has a one-in-seven chance of dying during her lifetime from pregnancy-related causes.

Most of these complications are a result of smaller, undeveloped pelvises and birth canals in these immature girls.

In poor countries like South Sudan, where most child marriages take place, clinics and emergency obstetric services are scarce.

Currently, there is only one qualified midwife per 30,000 people in the country, according to the UNDP.

Child marriage is dangerous for infants, too. Babies born to girls under 18 have a 60% greater chance of dying before their first birthday than ones born to women over 19 years of age, according to a 2012 report by Save the Children, a charity.

Ms Juan said that she named her daughter Mercy-Emelda because she believes her healthy birth was a sign of God's compassion.

South Sudan's child marriage rites may stem from ancient traditions, but its practice today can also be blamed on the country's poorly-defined and contradictory laws as well as the government's weak execution and enforcement of them.

The world's youngest nation, just two years old, has a constitution that defines a child as anybody below 18. Though this document also prohibits forced marriage, it does not specify a minimum age for wedlock.

The South Sudan Child Act of 2008 prohibits subjecting children to negative and harmful practices that affect their health, welfare and dignity. It also protects female children from exploitation, sexual abuse and gender-based violence, including rape, incest, and early and forced marriage.

Though it also lays down a jail term of seven years for abusing a child, the police and the courts lack the political will, as well as adequate skills, infrastructure and equipment, to apply the stipulated punishment.

An independent commission is currently reviewing the constitution, including its provisions on marriage. Paleki Mathew, director of the South Sudan Women Empowerment Network, is calling for the constitution to include a legally-protected minimum age for marriage.

This NGO has been seeking consensus on this subject through a series of workshops held throughout the country.

"We have gone to states and gathered different recommendations for the minimum age for marriage," Ms Mathew said. "Some people are even asking that it should be 18 and others are saying it should be 25." International human rights standards set 18 as the minimum age of marriage.

Child and forced marriage is a gross violation of a girl's right to childhood, according to Fatuma Ibrahim, a UNICEF official in South Sudan.

"The only way to end this harmful cultural and social practice is through collective efforts from everyone in the society, right from grass roots level to the policymakers' level," she said.

The HRW report asks South Sudan's president to declare zero tolerance on child marriage. The NGO also provided a long list of recommendations including: encouraging tribal communities to regulate the traditional practice of dowries by making sure women are consulted; raising awareness of the harm caused by child marriage and the benefits of delayed marriage and child-bearing; improving the training of lawyers, public prosecutors, judges and the police on gender-based violence, including child marriage.

If some of these measures are adopted, maybe Mercy-Emelda will grow up in a country where women have rights: to education, choosing their marital partners and deciding if and when to have children.

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