Nearly half of South Sudanese girls between 15 and 19 years old are married. Some were as young as 12 years old when they were forced to marry men who, in many cases, were far older than them. The Old Man Can Feed Us So You Will Marry Him, a new report from Human Rights Watch, documents these facts and describes the terrible consequences of forced marriage for so many girls in South Sudan.
Friday, March 8 was International Women’s Day; Human Rights Watch’s report was released the day before, to highlight the issue of child marriage. Every year, in countries from Niger to Bangladesh to the Dominican Republic, some 14 million girls are married before their 18th birthday. 11 percent were married before their 15th birthday, while one in three women aged 20-24 was married by the time she was 18.
Forced Marriage Deprives Young Women of Education, Health and More
From interviews with 87 girls and women as well as government officials, health care workers, tribal leaders and many others, the report describes how young girls are forced by their own family members into marriages in order to receive dowry payments or because they were suspected to have had premarital sex. Few girls know they have the right to resist a forced marriage; when they do, they are often subjected to violence at the hands of their relatives:
One girl, Ageer M. told Human Rights Watch, “I refused him but they beat me badly and took me by force to him. The man forced me to have sex with him so I had to stay there.”¯ …
… a 17-year-old girl studying in Lakes State['s] father tried to force her to marry an old man who had offered a dowry of 200 cows to her family. The girl refused and said, “I don’t know this man. I have never spoken to him, and he is not my age.”¯ The girl was taken to a nearby forest, tied to a tree and beaten until she died.
Even if a young woman does not suffer abuse, early forced marriage jeopardizes her health. Young women face greater complications in pregnancy and in childbirth. Due to having smaller pelvises and still-maturing bodies, they can face “life-threatening obstructed labor.”
An early forced marriage also means the end for a young woman’s education. Many of the young women interviewed spoke of how “dreams of continuing school to become accountants, teachers, or doctors were cut short when they married.” Statistics from the South Sudanese government show a bleak scenario: girls comprise only 39 percent of primary school students and 30 percent of secondary students.
As Liesl Gerntholtz, Human Rights Watch’s women’s rights director, says, “Girls who have the courage to refuse early marriages are in dire need of protection, support, and education.” The report recommends that governments — South Sudan’s and those of too many other countries — take action by making 18 the minimum legal age of marriage; passing family legislation on marriage, separation and divorce; and ratifying human rights treaties including the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (CRC).
Even more, governments must develop national plans not only to prevent but also to address the consequences of child marriage. A program in Ethiopia has specifically to sought assist married adolescents and address their health issues and also assist them in gaining economic independence.
“The global problem of child marriage strips women and girls of their livelihoods and creates a high risk of violence,” says Gerntholtz. A girl’s life should not be over while she is still a teenager, if not even younger.
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