The government of South Sudan should increase efforts to protect girls from child marriage, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a report as the world celebrates the 2013 International Women’s Day.
“The country’s widespread child marriage exacerbates South Sudan’s pronounced gender gaps in school enrollment, contributes to soaring maternal mortality rates, and violates the right of girls to be free from violence, and to marry only when they are able and willing to give their free consent,” the New York-based rights organisation said in a 95-page report.
Official government statistics show that at least 48% of South Sudanese girls between 15 and 19 are married, with some marrying as young as age 12.
The report recommends that the government clearly set 18 as the minimum age for marriage; ratify the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the Convention on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (CRC), and other human rights treaties, and pass comprehensive family legislation on marriage, separation and divorce.
HRW women’s rights director Liesl Gerntholtz said child marriage disrupts or ends a girl’s education, increases her risk of violence and abuse, and jeopardises her health.
“Failure to combat child marriage is also likely to have serious implications for the future development of South Sudan,” Gerntholtz added.
“It constrains the education, health, security, and economic progress of women and girls, their families, and their communities. Girls who have the courage to refuse early marriages are in dire need of protection, support, and education.
“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.”
The report quotes girls saying that that they are being pressured to marry by family members anxious to receive dowry payments, or because they were suspected of pre-marital sex.”
HRW said child marriage also puts girls at greater risk of death or ill-health because of early pregnancy and childbirth. Reproductive health studies show that young women face greater risks in pregnancy and child birth than older women, including life-threatening obstructed labour due to their smaller pelvises and immature bodies – problems accentuated by South Sudan’s limited prenatal and postnatal healthcare services.
Child marriage is a widespread practice in many African countries, from north to south and from east to west, and despite some NGOs’ tireless efforts to eradicate the scourge, it goes unabated.
The UNFPA report Marrying too Young, End Child Marriage released in 2012 lists the following countries as having the highest incidences of child marriage in the world: Niger (75%), Chad (72%), Bangladesh (66%), Guinea-Conakry (63%), Mali (55%), Mozambique (52%), Malawi (50%), Madagascar (48%), Sierra Leone (48%) and Burkina Faso (48%).
*Photo by Venessa Vick/New York Times. An African child mother carrying her child. Near her is the father of the child.