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South Sudan Struggles to Uphold Children's Rights


The Day of the African Child honors thousands of Soweto township school children who protested inequality and an unjust education system in apartheid South Africa in 1976. Heavily armed police opened fire on the demonstration on that day and killed 176 of the children. The African Union declared June 16 the annual Day of the African Child 15 years ago.

This year's theme for the Day of the African Child -- child marriage -- strikes a chord in South Sudan, where nearly half of girls between the ages of 15 and 19 are married.

Some are forced into marriage as young as age 12.

That's according to a report released in 2013 by Human Rights Watch. The report says child marriage contributes to soaring maternal mortality rates and violates the right of girls to be free from violence, because many young girls are beaten or raped by their spouses when they marry.

Child marriage also widens the already large gender gap in school enrollment in South Sudan: only 37 percent of girls attend primary school compared to around 51 percent of boys.

Child marriage is still widespread in South Sudan in spite of a 2008 law that says children have the right to be protected from early marriage.

But the practice of marrying off girls at a young age is deeply engrained in South Sudanese culture, and merely including a reference to child marriage in a legal statute is not enough to change people's mindsets.

Many South Sudanese see early marriage as being in the best interest of girls and their families, the Human Rights Watch report says. Marrying off a daughter is still seen by many parents in South Sudan as a way to access resources, such as cattle, which are traditionally paid to the families of girls in the form of a dowry.

Western Bahr el Ghazal's director for child protection in the gender ministry, Arkangelo Amatu, says part of the problem is that few adults are aware of what South Sudanese legal statutes say about protecting children.

“We need the Child Act to be distributed to the communities or translated into local languages so that the people could understand," Amatu says.

South Sudan also needs to establish a legal minimum age for marriage, he says. Until that happens, it will be hard for activists to successfully campaign to end the practice of marrying off children, Amatu says.

Children's dreams

In spite of the challenges they face, children in Wau - the capital of Western Bahr el Ghazal state - still nurture simple, poignant hopes for the future. Many of their dreams involve getting a good education, helping others and ending the violence that has wracked South Sudan for the past 18 months.

Here is what some of them said:

"Me, as an African child, I wish to see comprehensive peace and quality education in South Sudan, and I wish to see the people of South Sudan love themselves. That is my dream in life," one child said.

"My dream as a child of Africa is that we're going to have a responsible people in the future because the coming generation is concentrating on education," a boy said.

"Fighting, corruption and tribalism are going to end. That is my dream."

Karin Zeitvogel contributed to this report.

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