News / Africa

Child Marriage in South Sudan Pushes Maternal Mortality Higher

Sixteen-year-old Akuot was beaten for three days after she refused to be married off in exchange for a dowry of cattle, is shown here in Bor, Jonglei state, South Sudan, Feb. 2013.
Sixteen-year-old Akuot was beaten for three days after she refused to be married off in exchange for a dowry of cattle, is shown here in Bor, Jonglei state, South Sudan, Feb. 2013.
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Selah Hennessy
— Human Rights Watch says widespread child marriage in South Sudan is violating girls’ rights, limiting female education and contributing to soaring maternal mortality rates.

David Mepham of Human Rights Watch said the child marriage report is based on more than 80 interviews with girls and women.

“There is a case of a girl who was 15 at the time she was married off in 2003. Her family wanted her to be married to a man who was 75 years of age. She understandably resisted that, did not want to go through with it. But she was repeatedly beaten by members of her extended family to force her into that marriage - so a really awful example, but there are many like it,” said Mepham.
 
According to government statistics, just under half of girls aged between 15 and 19 in South Sudan are married. Some marry as early as 12.

The Human Rights Watch report released Thursday says this has major implications for the education of girls and women, and for the overall well-being of the country. It says many girls are leaving school early, some as young as 11, to marry.

The report says government statistics from 2011 show just 39 percent of primary school students and 30 percent of secondary students are female.

Early marriages also have a major impact on female health, said Mepham.

“Many girls who are married young, will become pregnant young. And as we know from a whole host of statistics and pieces of research that have been done over the years, young girls, often before their bodies are fully formed, are particularly vulnerable to complications in pregnancy and childbirth. And actually maternal mortality rates amongst young girls are very, very high,” he said.

The report says few girls who try to escape an early marriage are provided legal protection in South Sudan. It suggests the government set a minimum age for marriage at 18.  Mepham said officials must then make sure girls are protected.

“What the South Sudanese authorities need to do is to put in place a basic legal structure that allows protection and some safeguards for girls who try to resist, often with great courage, being forced into marriages against their will,” he said.

Worldwide, an estimated 14 million girls are married before their 18th birthday every year.

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