26 June 2022
In South Sudan, the arranged marriage of a young girl to an older man often brings the girl's family wealth measured in cows. Some girls bring their families up to 100 cows. Each cow is valued at $1,000.
Girls who are young, healthy and come from good families can bring much more. In 2018, one 17-year-old girl brought in 500 cows, two costly cars and $10,000 in an auction that made news around the world. She was then married to a man in his 50s.
The auctions still happen although South Sudan now has a law requiring girls to be 18 before they are married. The law is often violated.
Activists who are hoping to change this tradition wanted to bring up the issue of child brides being sold to older men, during a visit from Pope Francis in July.
However, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church canceled the visit earlier in June because he is recovering from a knee operation.
Francis was supposed to visit the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan from July 2 to 7. The Vatican said a new date would be set for the visit.
Jackline Nasiwa is the leader of the Center of Inclusive Governance, Peace and Justice in South Sudan's capital of Juba. She said families must sell their daughters "so they get something to survive."
South Sudan broke away from Sudan in 2011 with the hope of growth and peace, but that has not happened. The new country remains poor and is still recovering from a civil war that ended in 2018.
Many people are hungry as a result of flooding and other problems brought by climate change. Food prices are increasing after Russia invaded Ukraine in February.
One of the ways families can get money is by selling their daughters.
As a result, the United Nations says South Sudan has the world's fifth-highest number of child marriages. The U.N. says child marriage is a human rights violation that keeps girls from going to school and is a cause of poverty.
The U.N. children's agency, UNICEF, says that more than 30 percent of South Sudanese girls are pregnant before turning 15.
But some girls are fighting back.
Nyanachiek Madit is 21. She refused to be married to a much older man when she was 17. Her family wanted her to marry because school was too costly.
"I refused," she said. "I didn't accept to get married because I am disabled." Madit said getting an education will help her in the future. Because she was born with a disability, she said, "my education will be my ‘leg' later on."
Her family did not make her get married but did not pay for school.
A child group called Child Bride Solidarity heard Madit's story and helped her pay for school in Juba. "I am now happy," she said.
The U.N. Population Fund warns that early marriage can cause death. South Sudan has one of the highest maternal death rates in the world. Over 1,000 women out of every 100,000 who have babies die during childbirth, the organization said.
Chris Oyeyipo of the U.N. Population Fund talked during a Mother's Day event. "You cannot have a healthy mother, you cannot have a happy mother, if you are marrying off your children and making them mothers," he said.
The U.N. wants to end child marriage by 2030. But poor families in South Sudan see marrying off their daughters as a way to survive.
Some families worry that sending girls to school exposes them to other dangers such as sexual assault. But activists who work to end child marriage say the young girls can be raped by their new husbands.
Aya Benjamin is South Sudan's minister of gender, child, and social welfare. As a girl, she saw some of her friends married to older men.
She said, "It is our collective responsibility to make sure our girls are allowed to enjoy their childhood."
She said one of the ways to have a healthy society is to "allow girls to be children, allow them to be themselves, let them grow up and let them go to school and allow them to decide what they want to be in life."
I'm Caty Weaver.
Dan Friedell adapted this story for VOA Learning English based on reporting by The Associated Press.
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Words in This Story
arranged marriage – n. a marriage in which the husband and wife are chosen for each other by their parents
auction –n. a public sale at which things are sold to the people who offer to pay the most
disabled – adj. having a physical or mental disability
assault – n. a physical attack
allow – v. to permit someone to do some activity