Let us join hands to end child marriage!

As we commemorate the International Day for the Girl Child, girls are asking adults to give them a chance to fully unveil their potential.

By Wendy Macar Aciek (16 years) and Mohamed Ayoya (UNICEF Representative in South Sudan)
A girl holds up her palm to the camera.
09 October 2020
Child marriage is an act whereby a senior male, marries an underage girl who is physically and mentally unprepared to handle a family of her own.

Usually, the minor is forced into getting married to the elder by the community for financial gains or because of cultural needs. The tradition of child marriage is deeply rooted in South Sudan. It has been passed on through generations. About 52 per cent of the female population in our country is estimated to have been married before the age of 18 and 1 out of 3 girls have been impregnated before 15. These are very high numbers.

In today’s realities, there are many factors that trigger child marriage. Two main factors are spiking child marriage in our communities:

Financial gains – As a result of generational poverty, most families are struggling to meet their financial needs and to raise their children. The girl child is married off in exchange for a high dowry from rich elderly men to mitigate the financial needs of the struggling parents. In this context, the girl child is seen as a source of wealth.

Cultural norms – In most cultures in South Sudan, once a girl starts having her menstruation period she is seen as ready to bear children. So, she needs to be married off because that is her role in the society, right? If a girl grows older, no man shall marry her because maybe she has issues, they assume. If her great grandmothers and mother have been married early, then who is this girl to refuse? These are some of the misleading concepts and questions that continue to trigger child marriage across South Sudan.

Having a daughter is considered a burden. Girls are seen as very vulnerable and with many needs such as pads, body lotions, perfumes… So, society thinks, why not place the burden on her husband’s shoulders instead on the struggling family?

Child marriage is having a major effect on girls. It affects the girl child as a victim. 

A girl below 18 years is not biologically ready to carry a pregnancy for 9 months. Physically, her body is still developing. Early pregnancy may lead to death during the labor since the girl’s body cannot support the extreme pain and the heightened risk of hemorrhage that comes with birth. The baby may be born with health conditions and in some cases that causes the infant to die. We strongly believe that a child should not carry and care for another child.

We would also like to highlight that child marriage is a source of depression to the girl child. Girls who are married are forced to drop out of school. As a result, they give up and fail to achieve their passions. Instead they settle to care for their husbands and children.  The underage girls being married off could have become doctors, teachers, lawyers, engineers, pilots and so many professions that serve the community at large. Unfortunately, when married at an early age in the community, it is unlikely that they will come back to school to resume their education. It is detrimental for the girl child as she will not be able to pursue her ambitions.

Her childhood dreams and aspirations will never be realized.

Even though child marriage continues to be widespread in South Sudan, we should not fold our hands and watch this harmful practice against underage girls continue. When we find a tree burning, don’t we put out the fire to save the rest of the forest?  Yes, we can still save our girls and our communities.

Communities should eliminate bad social practices in their culture. We should learn to see the bad cultural practices instead of choosing to stay blind to them. These negative norms in our culture are hindering the development of the girl child. We encourage communities to blossom and give hope into the aspiration of the girl child. To do so, please let girls grow and decide on their own.

Our culture is truly beautiful in various ways, but some aspects need to change because they are not right.

Girls should finish their biological growth and education to develop their potential and become active and productive members of their communities to relieve their parents from the recurring poverty patterns in the community. Girls come from different backgrounds and not all parents may be able to afford school fees. But we are asking parents to give a chance for girls to fully reach their potential. We are calling upon families, communities, national and state governments to create a conducive environment where girls can develop themselves in schools and communities and become better people that serve their communities with passion. That is not only the best investment for the future, but also the smartest.

Girls can make much-needed changes in the communities. Girls have been blessed to have eyes, so why not open them? Let all girls be fully aware of the evils of their stolen innocence. 

Let us all join hands to create awareness against this particularly harmful practice and end child marriage. Girls want to be consulted and heard! We can truly make our communities better by ending child marriage, because when we educate a girl, we educate the whole nation.

Happy International Day of Girl Child!

 Authored by:
Portrait of Wendy
UNICEF South Sudan/Ruati
Wendy Macar Aciek (16 years)
Mohamed Ayoya amongst a group
UNICEF South Sudan
UNICEF Representative in South Sudan