Some young girls are still auctioned off into marriage for cows in South Sudan, one of the social challenges that activists had hoped to highlight during Pope Francis’ now-postponed visit.
Negotiations between the father and husband determine the price of a daughter. Typically, 50 to 100 cows are worth each $1,000. A girl who is considered beautiful, fertile, and of high social standing can fetch as many as 200 cows. A well-publicized case of a girl selling her cows was sold for 520 cows and cars a few years back.
Jackline Nasiwa, executive Director of the Center of Inclusive Governance, Peace and Justice, South Sudan’s capital, Juba, stated that “the younger the girl marries, the more the family receives cattle in return.” They sell their daughters to make it possible for them to survive.
Although South Sudanese law restricts marriage to people over 18, it is rarely enforced in rural areas.
Although South Sudan’s 2011 independence from Sudan brought much hope for peace and prosperity for its 12 million inhabitants, little has happened.
Five years of civil war were followed by five years of brutal inter-communal violence in the new country. The fragile peace agreement in 2018 ended the conflict, but most people are still living in poverty. Flooding and rising food prices due to Russia’s invasion have exacerbated widespread hunger.
According to the U.N. South Sudan is the fifth most common country in the world to have child marriage. This practice is considered a violation of human rights, a significant impediment to literacy, and a major source of persistent poverty. UNICEF estimates that around a third of South Sudan’s girls are pregnant by the age of 15.
Some South Sudanese girls are fighting back, despite all odds.
“I refused,” said 21-year-old Nyanachiek Madit, when her father said she would be married to a man about 50 years old because her family couldn’t afford to send her to school. She was 17 at the time.
“I didn’t accept to get married because I am disabled and my education will be my ‘leg’ later on,” said Nyanachiek, who was born with a congenital disorder. Convinced that schooling would give her a better life, she stood up to her family and dared them to beat or even kill her. Her family didn’t force her to marry but refused to pay her school fees as punishment.
Child Bride Solidarity was notified about Nyanachiek’s situation. They offer scholarships to girls whose parents have abandoned them following a disagreement with early marriage. Nyanachiek is now studying in South Sudan’s capital with the help of the group.
She told The Associated Press, “I am now content and happy.”
It is possible to die from early marriage. According to the United Nations Population Fund, South Sudan is among the most dangerous places in which to become a mother. One in every 100,000 live births results in a mother dying, which is one of the highest rates of maternal mortality in the world.
Chris Oyeyipo, U.N. Population Fund stated that a mother cannot be healthy and that a mother cannot be happy if she is marrying off her children and making them mothers during a Juba event to celebrate Mother’s Day.
The U.N. hopes to eliminate child marriage worldwide by 2030. But, South Sudan’s poor families see child marriage laws as a barrier to their daughters’ success and a threat to their survival.