JUBA, SOUTH SUDAN - Forced marriage destroys the dreams and sometimes costs the lives of South Sudanese girls, but ending the deeply engrained tradition in the world's newest nation will be a difficult and slow process, rights advocates say.
“The girl is our source of income," said John Akuok, an elderly man from Bor, the capital city of Jonglei state, who supports forced marriage.
"When a man comes, we give the girl to him and he gives us wealth. If the girl refuses to be married, we beat her to accept to marry him so that he can give us dowries,” Akuok said.
Child marriage is seen by many South Sudanese as "being in the best interests of girls and their families, and 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 Thursday by Human Rights Watch says.
A majority of South Sudanese live from farming and cattle-rearing, but during the long civil war, many lost their farming livelihoods.
"So the only source of income for them is that if they have children, if they have girls," Biel Jock Thich, Deputy Chairperson of South Sudan Human Rights Commission, is quoted as saying in the report.
"In some communities, women are married for 300 cows. That’s a lot of wealth that you get, maybe, from your daughter."
Changing the way South Sudanese view their daughters is a key step toward ending child marriage, said Thich. But it's hard to get South Sudanese to understand that "if you let your daughter go to school, she will have a value more" than several hundred head of cattle or a one-off payment.
"It is a challenge for (South Sudanese) to understand that, at this point. They don’t see... the value replacement that will come after the girl finishes university... To explain it to them, is a challenge," said Thich.
Human Rights Watch's Gauri van Gulik said that even though "child marriage doesnt end overnight, it is absolutely possible to end it in the longer term.
"To achieve that, we have to act now," she added.
Liesl Gerntholz, head of the Women's Rights Division at Human Rights Watch, said that an effort has to be made to change the view of South Sudanese toward their daughters and bride-payments, or dowries.
"Dowry... really is important in sort of driving child marriage and it’s part of the negotiation. So, I think regulating dowry and the payment of dowry is going to be an important way also of beginning to... eradicate child marriage, " she said.
For some girls, early marriage is an escape from violence in the home, the Human Rights Watch report says. But more often than not, forced marriage marks the beginning of abuse.
"Girls often face violence once they are married and there’s a lot of research, not just our research, that’s shows that younger girls are much more vulnerable to domestic violence than older girls," said Gerntholz.
Van Gulik called on the government of South Sudan to take the lead in changing long-held traditions to end child marriage, and to do more to protect women and girls, many of whose lives are a constant struggle against violence.
"Human Rights Watch has made long term recommendations to end child marriage, but right now, immediately, the government of South Sudan has to protect girls from violence and increase access to healthcare and education for girls," she said.
"The government has a certain number of responsibilities, regardless of different local practices," van Gulik said.
The Human Rights Watch report, titled “This Old Man Can Feed Us, You Will Marry Him: Child and Forced Marriage in South Sudan,” is based on interviews with more than 80 girls and women in Central Equatoria, Western Equatoria, and Jonglei states. The name of the report is a quote from one of the interviews.
The report recommends that the South Sudanese government set the minimum age for marriage at 18 and provide training to public officials to protect girls from forced marriage.
It also calls for a stepped-up effort to educate South Sudanese on the impact of child marriage on girls and the country as a whole, and calls for legislation on marriage, separation and divorce.
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.
Girls like Akuot B., whose full name was not given, are beaten when they refuse to go along with a forced marriage. Girls have even been killed after defying their parents' wishes to marry older men whom they don't know.
The Human Rights Watch report tells the story of a 16-year-old girl who 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.
"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.