JUBA, South Sudan 

Increasing incidents of parents trading their daughters for cows has fueled the practice of child marriages in the landlocked East-Central African country of South Sudan. 

The custom has taken such a dangerous proportion that regional administrative chiefs have asked the government in capital Juba to enact a strong law to ban the practice.

Speaking to Anadolu Agency James Konyi Korok, chief of Pibor Administrative Area, while expressing his helplessness to end the practice, described the situation as alarming. He said the parents are marrying off their underage daughters due to poverty.

“We want NGOs dealing in human rights issues and the government to come forward and make comprehensive laws to enable the communities to stop child marriage. Without laws you cannot end this practice,” he said.

“Without a proper law, a chief cannot stop the practice. If you intervene it means inviting trouble,” he added.

Korok revealed that parents trade their daughters to get 60 cows, and if the boy elopes with the girl, then his family has to pay 80-100 cows.

Admitting that education has played a part, and the practice of child education has reduced in some areas, but it is still rampant in many other areas.

“The school policy is telling us that let children be educated and that has played a role, creating awareness among the communities, some people have already accepted ending child marriage but others are still practicing it,” he said.

He added that insecurity compounded with flooding is making it difficult for the chiefs to move from village to village to inspect and put an end to the practice. 

COVID-19 aggravated crises

James Kiir Wal, chief of central Malakal, however, said that the practice of elderly people marrying young girls has stopped to a large extent. But it is still rampant among youth, who are out to seek underage girls.

“Child marriages have reduced among the elderly. But it is a common practice among youth. The COVID-19 outbreak has also exacerbated the practice,” said Wal.

Jame David Kolok, executive director of Foundation of Democracy and Accountable Governance, said the practice of child marriage is a very serious phenomenon. He said this practice is taking place under the government’s nose.

“It is not just a question of sensitization, it is a question of diversifying livelihoods so that these communities can identify the other option of raising resources,” he said.

In South Sudan, 52% of all girls are married before they reach 18 and around one-third of all girls become pregnant before turning 15, depriving them of their basic rights.

South Sudan is among the countries with deeply entrenched cultural practices and social evils linked to gender. 

Action plan to end practice by 2023

The Minister of Gender, Child and Social Welfare Ayaa Benjamin Warille called for devising more strategic ways to end the practice of child marriages. She said that the government is committed to ending this social evil by 2030.

The strategic National Action Plan for ending child marriage was started in 2017.

Urging communities to develop their plans to end this practice, Warille noted that 50% of women in the country are married before they turn 18 years.

The government has prioritized child protection, promoting gender equality and women empowerment according to the 2011 Transitional Constitution and 2008 Child Act in a bid to end child marriage practice.

To address gender-based violence, South Sudan’s government, in partnership with UN agencies has set up a special court recently. According to the ministry, as many as 6,295 incidents of gender-based violence were recorded from Jan. 1 -Sept. 30 this year.

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