JUBA—“You will marry this old man whether you like it or not,” Aguet’s uncles told her.
Aguet, from South Sudan, was forced at age 15 to marry a 75-year-old man. Her family received 80 cows as dowry in exchange. “I resisted the marriage,” she told Human Rights Watch. But her uncles beat her and the marriage went ahead. Aguet dropped out of school and went to live with her husband, who now also beats her.
A new Human Rights Watch report—This Old Man Can Feed Us, You Will Marry Him, takes a hard look at child marriage in South Sudan. About 48 percent of girls there between the ages of 15 and 19 are married; some marry as young as 12. Families in South Sudan often arrange marriages without the girls’ consent, with many viewing it as in the girls’ best interest. Families profit from marrying off girls because the groom’s family typically pays dowries of cows, cash, and other gifts to the bride’s kin. South Sudanese girls who try to resist, as Aguet did, may face violent attacks by their own families. A government official told Human Rights Watch about a family that murdered a girl who resisted an arranged marriage.
Globally, the numbers of girls subjected to child marriage is staggering. The United Nations estimates that, in 2010, more than 67 million women ages 20 to 24 had married before age 18. Between 2000 and 2011, approximately 34 percent of women now aged 20 to 24 in developing regions were married or in unions before their 18th birthday. Over the next decade, more than 14 million girls under 18 are projected to marry every year.
In South Sudan, Human Rights Watch researchers interviewed 87 girls and women forced to marry as children, and others including government officials, traditional leaders, health care providers and educators. We found that child marriage contributed to domestic violence and marital rape, school dropouts, and reproductive health problems.
Girls and women who married as children told Human Rights Watch how their husbands and in-laws abused them for not being good at chores, for not conceiving, or for asking for financial support. Some said their husbands raped them. “I had refused to have sex with him,” one child bride told us. “But he forced me. My brothers-in-law used to lock me up in the house … so that I can have sex with him.”
Child marriage frequently ends a girl’s education forever. School attendance for girls in South Sudan is already low: government statistics for 2011 show that only 39 percent of primary school students and 30 percent of secondary students were female. Akech, for example, said she loved school and dreamed of becoming a nurse. But at age 14 her uncle forced her marry a man she described as old, gray-haired, and married to another woman. Akech begged her uncle to let her stay in school, but he refused. “Girls are born so that people can eat. All I want is to get my dowry,” he said. An education official told us, “Parents sell their girls. They don’t value education; they value cows.”
Reproductive health problems also plague girls subjected to child marriage. According to the United Nations Population Fund, girls aged 15 to 20 are twice as likely to die in childbirth as those in their 20s, and girls under the age of 15 are five times as likely to die. South Sudan has one of the highest maternal mortality ratios in the world.
Pregnancy for adolescent girls poses a serious risk of developing obstetric fistula, since their smaller pelvises make them prone to obstructed labor. Fistula leaves its victims with urine or fecal incontinence that causes infection, pain, and a bad smell. About 5,000 girls and women in South Sudan suffer from fistula each year. Victoria, for example, became pregnant shortly after marrying at age 14, and endured obstructed labor for three days before getting a cesarean section. “They found the baby was dead,” she told us. “After that I found out that urine was coming out all the time.”
To its credit, South Sudan has adopted important policies and laws on gender equality, children’s rights, and education. But major gaps remain, chiefly in laws and implementation.
South Sudan needs to do more—with assistance from international donors—to end child marriage and mitigate its consequences. For starters, it should set and enforce 18 as the minimum age for marriage, establish a national action plan on child marriage that addresses the problem of dowries, and carry out a nationwide awareness-raising campaign on the harm of child marriage.
Girls and women like Aguet, Akech, and Victoria are entitled to enjoy their basic human rights to free and full consent to marriage, to equality, to education, and to health. They also have a right to realize their dreams—not to see them destroyed by marriages they neither choose nor want.
Janet Walsh is deputy women’s rights director and Gauri van Gulik is the women’s rights advocate at Human Rights Watch.