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End Child Marriage, Rights Group Tells South Sudan

A sixteen-year old girl, identified only as Akuot, shown here in Bor, Jonglei state, in February 2013, was beaten for three days after she refused to be married off in exchange for a dowry of cattle. (Courtesy/Brent Stirton/Reportage for Human Rights Watch)
In a graphic and troubling report released Thursday in Juba, Human Rights Watch called for an end to under-age marriage for girls in South Sudan, where nearly half of young women aged 15-19 are married, many against their will.

Some South Sudanese girls are married off as early as the age of 12 by their families, often in exchange for a dowry of cattle, says a report called "This Old Man Can Feed Us, You Will Marry Him" -- a quote taken from one of the scores of interviews conducted by Human Rights Watch to compile the report.

Forcing girls to marry worsens "South Sudan’s pronounced gender gaps in school enrollment, contributes to soaring maternal mortality rates, and violates the right of girls to be free from violence, and to marry only when they are able and willing to give their free consent," the report says.

Human Rights Watch chillingly documents the most dire consequences of child marriage with the story of a girl who was brutally killed when she refused to marry a man she didn't know and who was many years her senior.

The 16-year-old girl was studying in Lakes state when she was told by her father that she was to marry an old man who offered a dowry of 200 cows to the family, Human Rights Watch says in the report.

"The girl refused and said, 'I don’t know this man. I have never spoken to him, and he is not my age,'" the report says.

She was taken to a forest, tied to a tree and beaten until she died.

“Girls who have the courage to refuse early marriages are in dire need of protection, support, and education,” said Liesl Gerntholtz, women’s rights director at Human Rights Watch.

“The South Sudan government must make sure that there is a coordinated government response to cases of child marriage and more training for police and prosecutors on the right of girls to protection.”

The report was based on interviews with 87 girls and women in Central Equatoria, Western Equatoria, and Jonglei states, as well as with government officials, traditional leaders, health care workers, legal and women’s rights experts, teachers, prison officials, and representatives of nongovernmental organizations, the United Nations, and donor organizations.

Human Rights Watch makes several recommendations to the government of South Sudan, including that it make 18 the legal age for marriage.

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