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article imageSouth Sudan's colossal child marriage problem

By Raluca Besliu     Mar 12, 2013 in Politics
A newly released Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, entitled "This Old Man Can Feed Us, You Will Marry Him:’ Child and Forced Marriage in South Sudan," calls on the government of South Sudan to adopt measures to protect girls from child marriage.
In a country where at least 48 percent of young girls between 15 and 19 are married, with some marrying as young as 12, child marriage further widens gender gaps in school enrollment, contributes to rampant mortality rates and prevents girls from being free from violence.
The report’s information was collected through 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 experts, teachers, the United Nations and non-governmental organizations.
Many of the interviewees confessed that they were pressured or forced by their families to marry in exchange for dowry payments. Aguet, who married at the age of 15, revealed that, while she wanted to finish her education, her uncles brutally beat her and her mother to determine her to marry a 75-year-old man. She recalls: “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.”
Liesl Gerntholtz, women’s rights direction at HRW, stressed that: “Girls who have the courage to refuse early marriages are in dire need of protection, support, and education.” She added: “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.”
According to 2011 official governmental statistics, only 39 percent of primary school students and 30 percent of secondary students are female, in part as a result of child marriage. While preventing them from attending school, child marriage also increases younger girls' vulnerability to prolonged labor obstetric fistula, or maternal death. In fact, South Sudan currently has the highest maternal mortality rate in the world with around 2,054 women dying in childbirth for every 100,000 live births.
According to UN data, complications from pregnancy and childbirth are the key death causes for girls aged 15-19 years in developing countries. Around 90 percent of the 16 million adolescent girls giving birth each years are married. UNICEF suggests that around 50,000 die, almost all in low- and middle-income countries.
In its report, HRW recommended that the South Sudanese government not only set 18 as the minimum age for marriage, but that it ratify relevant international treaties, such as the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the Convention on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (CRC). It also encouraged it to develop and implement a comprehensive national action plan to prevent and address the consequences of child marriage and set guidelines on how national and state level government ministries and agencies should handle child marriage cases.
The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) predicted that, between 2011 and 2020, over 140 million girls will become child brides. Every year, around 14 million girls around the world marry before turning 18. While child marriage occurs worldwide, this practice is particularly prevalent in South Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin America and the Caribbean. A 2012 UNICEF report emphasized that around one in three women aged 20-24 years were married before reaching 18 years of age, while 11 percent married before they were 15. In sub-Saharan Africa, over one third of young women marry by 18, while in South Asia that number is nearly half. The top three countries with the highest rates of child marriage are Niger with 75 percent of young women being married before 18, Chad and Central African Republic both at 68 percent.
Addressing child marriage is essential in achieving Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) 3, 4 and 5 aiming to ensure gender equality, reduce child mortality and improve maternal health. The UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, made the following appeal: "I urge governments, community and religious leaders, civil society, the private sector, and families—especially men and boys—to do their part to let girls be girls, not brides."
Lakshmi Sundaram, the Global Coordinator of Girls Not Brides, emphasized: "The needs of adolescent girls were overlooked in the Millennium Development Goals; they must have a central place in any new goals set by the international community.” She believes that using the rate of child marriage as an indicator to monitor progress against new goals, the international community can ensure that governments focus on securing girls and women’s welfare.
Child marriage is a complex issue, often caused by traditional gender inequality and poverty, most common in rural and impoverished areas, where girls have limited opportunities. Child marriage is increasingly recognized as a violation of girls’ rights, because it often ends their access to education and to vocational and life skills, while increasing their risk of too-early pregnancy, child bearing, and motherhood before becoming physically and psychologically ready.
The Commission on the Status of Women recommended several measures to end child marriage, such as adopting and implementing legislation that recognizes 18 as the minimum marriage age, ensuring equal access to quality primary and secondary education for both girls and boys as well as addressing the problem’s roots causes, which include poverty, the low value placed on girls and violence against women and girls.
Originally posted on Taking on the Giant:
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