JUBA, South Sudan — In South Sudan, some young girls are still being auctioned off in exchange for cows — one of the social challenges activists want to highlight during Pope Francis’ now-delayed visit.
The price of a daughter is negotiated between the father and the prospective husband and is usually 50 to 100 cows worth up to $1,000 each. A girl regarded as beautiful, fertile and of high social status can bring as many as 200 cows. A girl in a well-publicized case a few years ago was auctioned off for 520 cows and a car.
“The younger the girl, the more the family gets in return,” said Jackline Nasiwa, executive director of the Center for Inclusive Governance, Peace and Justice in Juba, South Sudan’s capital. “They sold their daughters, in order to gain some chance of survival.”
Although South Sudanese laws limit marriage to 18 and over, they are rarely enforced, especially in rural areas.
South Sudan’s independence from Sudan in 2011 brought widespread hopes of prosperity and peace for the country’s 12 million people, but little has been achieved.
The new country soon plunged into a five-year civil war that ended with a fragile peace deal in 2018, but deadly intercommunal violence continued and most people remained trapped in poverty. Climate shocks, such as floods, and rising food prices due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have contributed to widespread hunger.
According to the United Nations, South Sudan has the fifth highest prevalence of child marriage in the world, and the practice is a human rights violation, a serious obstacle to literacy and a major cause of persistent poverty. According to UNICEF, about a third of girls in the country are pregnant before the age of 15.
Despite the difficulties, some South Sudanese girls fought back.
“I refused,” said Nyanachiek Madit, 21, when her father said she would marry a man of about 50 because her family couldn’t afford to send her to school. She was 17 at the time.
“I didn’t get married because I am disabled and my education will be my ‘leg’,” said Nyanachiek, who was born with a congenital disorder. Convinced that school education would lead her to a better life, she bravely faced her family and dared to beat or even kill her. Instead of forcing her to marry, her family refused to pay her school fees as punishment.
Nyanachiek’s plight caught the attention of ChildBride Solidarity, an organization that provides scholarships to girls abandoned by their parents who oppose early marriage. With the organization’s help, Nyanachiek is now studying in the South Sudanese capital.
“I’m very happy right now,” she told The Associated Press.
Early marriage can be fatal. The United Nations Population Fund says South Sudan is one of the most dangerous places to be a mother. Out of 100,000 live births, 1,150 mothers die, one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world.
“If you’re going to marry children and make them mothers, it’s impossible to have a healthy mother, nor Possibly a happy mother.”
The United Nations wants to end child marriage globally by 2030. But poor families in South Sudan say laws banning child marriage prevent them from profiting from their daughters and threaten their very existence.
Due to factors such as conflict and cultural beliefs, only about 10 percent of girls in South Sudan complete primary school, according to UNICEF and Plan International.
Experts say some families worry that sending girls to school exposes them to risks such as sexual assault, which could reduce their value when looking for marriage partners. Yet experts say early marriage exposes girls to domestic abuse, including rape.
South Sudan’s Gender, Children and Social Welfare minister, Aya Benjamin, said the authorities had a long way to go to change that attitude, and she was still a girl watching some of her friends get married.
“It is our collective responsibility to make sure our girls can enjoy childhood,” she told The Associated Press. “We are not against marriage.
“We just say let girls be kids. Let them be themselves. Let them grow up, let them go to school, let them decide who they want to be so we can have a healthy society.”
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