JUBA, SOUTH SUDAN —
As the world marks the International Day of the African Child on Sunday, with a focus on doing away with practices that harm children, officials in South Sudan are driving home the message that the country must end child marriage and allow girls to stay in school.
"We need to work together so that we can eliminate child marriage," Ministry of General Education official Joy Gordon Soro told a gathering in Juba.
"Some years ago, there were some girls who were beaten by their parents, because they refused to be married. Another one kill herself because the parents needed her to be married at an early age. Parents, let us not force our children to marry at an early age,” Soro said.
According to statistics from South Sudan’s Ministry of Gender, Child and Social Welfare, nearly half of South Sudanese girls between the ages of 15 and 19 are married, many of them against their will. Girls as young as 12 are married off sometimes, in exchange for a dowry.
Child marriage is seen by many South Sudanese as "an important way for families to access much-needed resources, such as cattle, money, and other gifts via the traditional practice of transferring wealth through the payment of dowries," a report released in March by Human Rights Watch says.
"In some communities, women are married for 300 cows. That’s a lot of wealth that you get, maybe, from your daughter," Biel Jock Thich, deputy chair of the South Sudan Human Rights Commission, is quoted as saying in the report.
Parents, don't force your children to marry at an early age.
Officials are trying to teach parents around South Sudan to let their daughters stay in school, where they can acquire skills that will ultimately allow them to contribute more wealth to the family than a one-off dowry payment of several hundred head of cattle.
Priscilla Nyayang Joseph, the deputy minister of Gender, Child and Social Welfare, said at the event in Juba that the government will soon roll out a nationwide campaign to encourage girls to stay in school, as part of its commitment to end child marriage.
“You might not see things changing fast, but they going to change for the better and we want you to help," she said.
In Yambio county in Western Equatoria state, a program to keep girls in school has seen the number of girls who dropped out because of pregnancy and early marriages fall from 184 in 2011 to 102 by the end of the 2012 school year.
The Day of the African Child
has been celebrated on June 16 every year since 1991 to honor the children and adults who were gunned down in Soweto on that day in 1976, as they marched to protest the use of Afrikaans as one of the languages of instruction in schools, and in the riots that swept through the township in the weeks afterwards.