Masimino Abala Saverio, Imehejek Payam’s Head Chief, says early and forced marriages are common in Eastern Equatoria State.
The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) last year reported that the incidence of early pregnancy and under-age marriage is around 70 percent among teenage girls in the Eastern Equatoria.
Masimino says traditional leaders are at the front line and could play an active part in addressing the issue. If we the chiefs are trained on child marriage, we can speak out against child marriage and also calling for the arrest and prosecution of persons perpetuating forced marriages of child brides,” Saverio says.
Traditional leaders play a very important role in advancing development.”
Masimino Abala Saverio
South Sudanese national law forbids marriage below the age of 18, but many girls are married much younger. Reliable data on child marriages is hard to find, but estimates show that almost half of South Sudanese women are married below the age of 15 – one of the highest prevalence rates in the world, according to UNFPA.
Through training, traditional leaders in South Sudan could emphasise this problem during public discussions and village gatherings, the chief says.
They (traditional leaders) would utilise public gatherings as a platform to educate their communities about the consequences for families who marry girls off at a young age,” Masimino explains.
Traditional leaders play a very important role in advancing development. And as custodians of culture, people hold them in high esteem.”
The chief blames the persistently high rates of child marriage on the high illiteracy rate which limits the understanding of local chiefs to tell parents and community members that marrying off their children at an early age violates their rights.
He adds that girls have a lot of potential, if allowed to finish education and argued that the media should stage discussions on child marriages, a problem in both urban and rural South Sudan.
Hampering the campaign to stop child-marriage in South Sudan is legal ambiguity about the age of consent. The Customary law in South Sudan allows someone to marry legally below 18 years-of-age based on the consent of both the parents and bride and the groom. But the Statutory law considers someone an adult, who is able to marry, only once they reach the age of 18. This requires clarification, Masimino says.
The number of girls marrying as children contributes to the country’s maternal mortality rates, some of the highest in the world.
Recently, John Gai Yoach, South Sudan’s Education Minister, said the government was doing everything possible to encourage young girls to continue their education, finish school and to have a family for which they can adequately plan for.
The minster further said the Ministry of Education in collaboration with the Ministry of Gender and Social Welfare and partners were working hard to invest in programmes that will enforce national legislation against child marriage, support information sharing with communities to transform negative traditional norms that influence child marriages and create safe spaces for girls affected and at risk of child marriage, and other debilitating life situations.
But despite the physical damage and the persistent discrimination of young girls, little progress has been made toward ending the practice of child marriage. In fact, the problem threatens to increase with the expanding youth population in developing countries, according to a 2015 UN report.
Studies indicate that girls who marry later and delay pregnancy increase their chances of staying healthy, gaining education and a better life for themselves and their families. However, girls who get married at a young age often face complications during pregnancy and childbirth, the leading cause of death among young women.
According to the UNFPA, within the decade from 2011 and 2020, more than 140 million girls are expected to become child brides.
If current levels of child marriages stay steady globally, 14.2 million girls annually or 39,000 girls daily will marry too young. Of the 140 million girls who are expected to marry before they are 18-years-of-age, 50 million girls are expected to marry under the age of 15, the report suggests.