In South Sudan, it is illegal to marry under the age of 18. South Sudan, however, ranks number 8 in the world on the list of countries with the highest incidence of child marriage.
Apuk (Image 2)
She was well-dressed that day, likely a new bride. According to the Ministry of Gender, Child, and Social Welfare, half of South Sudanese girls between the ages of 15 and 19 are married, many of them against their will.
In many communities, marriage is viewed as a way to protect girls from pre-marital sex and unwanted pregnancy, which undermine family honor and reduce the amount of dowry a girl is “worth.”
In exchange for giving away their daughters to marriage, families receive a dowry. In most cases this takes the form of cattle.
Younger men have not accumulated enough wealth (cows) to pay a dowry. They are incentivized to hastily negotiate the dowry received from their sister’s marriage and use it as payment for their own dowry obligations.
The limited attention that men and boys have received in the global movement to end child marriage offers an opportunity to holistically change attitudes and behaviors of current and future generations.
High levels of poverty, conflict, instability, low levels of literacy and gender gaps in education fuel child marriage in South Sudan. Girls and families often feel that they are escaping poverty by marrying young.
South Sudan has made great strides to bring women’s rights and visibility out to the open but there is still a failure toimplement existing legislation and local laws.
Traditional courts typically decide matters relating to early marriage, divorce, child custody, and domestic violence. These courts frequently discriminate against women and girls.
From a young age, girls are told told to focus on being a good wife. But once educated, girls are not seen as a good traditional African or South Sudanese wife.
Once viewed as a means of protection, marriage is now a business transaction for families, a transaction all too often between a poor family and an older man.
In South Sudan, white cows are worth USD $500-1000.
The average dowry size is between 40 – 300 cows.
Sarah, Age 16 (Image 15)
Sarah is part of the 1% of S. Sudanese girls attending secondary school. When she was 13, a man in his 30s/40s paid for her school fees and her family was in discussions with him for a sizable dowry payment.
Sarah got pregnant, her boyfriend disappeared, and dowry negotiations ended. She now manages school and motherhood with help from her aunt and from a neighbor who provides child care.
Mary, Age 16 (Image 17)
While living in Juba, Mary got pregnant by her boyfriend at the age of 15. At the same time, her family tried to marry her to a man who was 50 years old at a reduced dowry. She fled Juba to avoid marriage and came to Kakuma.
While living in Kakuma, one of Mary’s uncles found her and beat her for refusing to marry the older man. Her uncle told her that she either needs to go back to Juba or get married. She continues to refuse both options. Mary wishes to continue to go to school, but is afraid to leave her child in the house for fear that her family, who vehemently disapproves of her life choices, will abuse her child.
1 in 3 girls in the developing world are married by 18. Over half of S. Sudanese girls are married before the age of 18. Once married, they drop out of school, experience high levels of domestic abuse, and are at a high risk of maternal mortality. South Sudan has the highest maternal mortality rate in the world.
Many of the girls living in the Kakuma Refugee camp are the daughters of soldiers who died fighting for South Sudan’s independence. Without their father’s financial support, they become increasingly vulnerable to early marriage.
Abul, Age 18 (Image 25)
When Abul was 15, a 60-year old man wanted to marry her. During their first few interactions, he made advances was harsh with her. Abul’s sister intervened and was successful at getting the family to delay marriage.
Abul is now a single mother and knows that she will no longer command a high dowry. She feels that she will likely never marry. Her sister, once her advocate, no longer speaks to her. Abul wants to go back to school and become a lawyer. She hopes the money that she would make as a lawyer would repay the lost dowry and end their anger towards her.
Yar, 17 (Image 22)
Yar dropped out of school when her father died. She wants to be a journalist and a good wife -- but first a journalist
Monicah, 16 (Image 23)
While only 9% of girls are married by 15, this percentage increases to 52% by the age of 18. The likelihood that she will marry in the next year is exceedingly high.
Monicah is the oldest of six children and her family can no longer afford school. Studies show that girls’ educational attainment (or lack thereof) is one of the strongest predictors of early marriage and economic opportunity. Monicah wants to become a doctor.
There are communities that are very anti-education because they do not understand its value. Girls are considered a commodity. The earlier they are married, the less of a burden they are to their families.
Khot, Age 20 (Image 27)
When Khot was 13, a man came to Kakuma to marry her. He was 36 years old and living in Australia. At that time, her father told the man that she was too young and that he should come back. On an extended visit back to South Sudan, Khot met and wanted to marry Noon who was 26 and from a rival family. Her family refused marriage but found that she had become pregnant by him.
Khot’s family returned to Kakuma hopeful to still arrange a marriage albeit at a smaller dowry price, only to find that Khot’s original suitor has impregnated another girl. Noon died shortly thereafter in South Sudan.
Khot now has pneumonia. And her family blames her for their financial hardships. She is not interested in marriage. HOPES???
Monica, Age 18 (Image 30)
At age 12, Monica’s uncle took her to be married to a 50 year old man. She resisted, but was forced. Her dowry was 30 cows. Two years into their marriage, her husband, unliked by many in the community, was poisoned.
After his death, Monica was supposed to marry the relative of her late husband. She refused and left for the Yawe refugee camp outside of Gambella, Ethiopia. Her uncle looked for her in order to return her otherwise the family would have to return the original dowry payment.
Monica fled Gambella and took a boat to Akobo, South Sudan. From there, her mother sent her 2,000 South Sudanese pounds. Monica bribed the pilot of a cargo plane to take her from Akobo to Juba. She is now temporarily residing in Nairobi and hopes to return to school.
Debra, Age 22 (Image 33)
Debra married her husband when she was 18. Her husband is 42 and lives and works in Australia. She remains in the refugee camp. Since getting married they have only seen each other three times. Her husband has refused to send payment for her schooling and says that the visa for her to come too expensive. But, Debra still hopes to become a nurse one day.
While girls are often the most vulnerable in conflict zones, the increase in early and forced marriages is also happening in areas where there is no fighting.