WASHINGTON / JUBA, SOUTH SUDAN - The U.N. Commission on the Status of Women says gender equality in Africa can be achieved only if women and girls — especially those in rural areas — have a voice in politics and economic planning.
That conclusion came out of the commission's annual meeting in New York this week. Lopa Banerjee, director of the U.N. Women's Civil Society Division, said the commission has "irrefutable evidence" that women and girls in rural areas will be left behind unless government policy failures are addressed.
"We are putting the laser light on the rights of women and girls who live in rural areas whose rights and ability to exercise their full potential has been held back," Banerjee told VOA's South Sudan in Focus.
Esther Mwaura-Muiru, founder of the nonprofit GROOTS (Grassroots Organizations Operating Together in Sisterhood) Kenya, who spoke at this year's session, said one key issue is unpaid child care and other work that African women and girls routinely provide.
"We are not saying [they must] be paid, but there must be investment for them to be able to engage with government," Mwaura-Muiru told South Sudan in Focus.
Banerjee said the level of deprivation that women and girls in rural areas face has existed for decades, to a point where it becomes a vicious cycle.
"If you think about a young girl who is born into a poor household in a deep rural community, by the time that she is able to work she is already taking care of other siblings" and "perhaps already involved in domestic work," Banerjee said.
Women make up 50 percent of Africa's population, but 80 percent of them live in rural areas. More than half of rural women are employed in the agriculture sector, which U.N. Women describes as the backbone of African economies.
The U.N. children's agency UNICEF says even though child marriages are on the decline globally, the practice is still widespread in parts of Africa.
Under the South Sudan Education Act 2012, all children have the right to be in school. Under South Sudan's Child Act 2008, it is illegal to force a schoolgirl to get married. And under South Sudanese law, one must be 18 to marry.
However, education officials in South Sudan's Jonglei state say it's extremely difficult to implement those laws.
John Adol Malual, education director in Bor East County, explained: "If somebody has impregnated a girl child in the school and you want to come in as implementer of this law, you may already find the parent of the girl and the girl herself and the man who has done that have an agreement. So there is no way of putting yourself there."
Ajier Mary, 27, said she married at the age of 15 because she was worried that she might not find a husband later in life.
"We just thought that we are wasting our time because we know that mothers and fathers who survived, they are alive without education. So, I chose to drop out of school without instruction from [my] mom and also my dad. Now when I see my classmates holding bachelors [degrees], I feel guilty," Mary said.
Mary said she thinks about going back to school, but the responsibilities of family have prevented her from doing so. She said her experience has taught her to raise her seven-year-old daughter differently.
Abel Majak, a community elder in Bor, admits he forced his 16-year-old daughter to accept a marriage proposal.
"Six men came to me offering to marry my daughter. My daughter was in [eighth grade] and she refused, saying she wanted to continue her education first. I told her that was not acceptable. When a husband has come with a lot of cows and wants to marry you, your education should stop," Majak said.
According to UNICEF, an estimated 12 million girls a year marry in childhood worldwide. That number is 25 million fewer than what was anticipated 10 years ago.
To end the practice by 2030 — the target set out in the U.N.'s Sustainable Development Goals — UNICEF said progress must be significantly accelerated. It says that 650 million women alive today were married as children.
U.N. Women is urging governments to undertake legislative and administrative reforms to promote land rights, control over reproductive resources, and access to natural resources.
The Commission on the Status of Women report argues, in part:
* Women are susceptible to dispossession because they lack inheritance rights.
* Women lack effective and transparent land governance. In many countries, rural land is often undocumented, making it highly vulnerable to land grabs and expropriation and making local communities vulnerable to dispossession and displacement with little or no compensation.
* Child and early marriage has clear implications for the sexual and reproductive health and rights of women and girls. These include a lack of information, adequate health care and decision-making power regarding safe sex and family planning.
* Death and disease associated with lack of access to safe and reliable water and sanitation disproportionately affect poor rural women and girls.