Religious leaders stand with girls in South Sudan

A group of religious leaders participate in the faith for positive change for children initiative

By Mercy Kolok
Group photo of religious leaders in South Sudan
UNICEF South Sudan/2019/Chol
16 October 2019

JUBA, South Sudan – “My mother was married off as a child and got pregnant with me when she was only thirteen years,” explains Reverend Abuk. “When I turned two years old, my father took me away and gave me to my step mother. I am a victim of child marriage because not only have I missed out on my mother’s love as a child, but missed school severally while growing up because my father preferred to educate my brothers. I’ve been in and out of school and finally dropped out when I was in my second year of high school to get married.”

Abuk’s story is one of many stories of girls in South Sudan and globally where child marriage continues to affect the fate of young girls, their families and their children. In South Sudan, a girl is three times more likely to die in child-birth than complete primary school. South Sudan is among the top ten countries where child marriage is rampant. According to UNICEF, South Sudan has the seventh highest prevalence rate of child marriage in the world with fifty-two per cent of girls getting married before the age of eighteen and nine per cent before reaching fifteen years.

“Negative cultural practices towards girls continue to hinder a lot of girls from going to school or completing school.”

– Bishop Abraham Ngor

“Some parents believe that girls who are educated are more likely to get pregnant and risk the family the opportunity of a great reward in terms of dowry because no one will want to marry a girl who is not a virgin,” explains Bishop Abraham Ngor. “As religious leaders we have a role to protect children because we have the platform to influence communities for positive change.”

Religious leader hold up cards with hashtag phrases
UNICEF South Sudan/2019/Chol

In addition to negative cultural practices, girls in South Sudan remain unprotected and vulnerable due to poverty, weak legal frameworks, gender norms, armed conflict and family honour, a practice that encourages chastity in return for high bride price. All these factors heavily contribute to the high rates of child marriage.

“Parents need to be sensitized to stop giving their children – especially girls – unnecessary pressure to get married.” 

– Sheikh Musa Guduri

“It is common practice to hear mothers telling their children to get married because the children of their friends are married or already have children,” says Sheikh Musa Guduri. “This results in school drop outs and child marriages.”

Not only does child marriage affect girls’ education but remains a human right and health concern for young girls and children born to these girls.

“I come from a community that encourages and supports child marriage however we should not allow culture and traditions to be used to deny girls the right to education, the right to health, the right to choose their spouse and to get married when they are adults,” says Adut Jacob, a member of Mother’s Union.

“As an influential person in my community, it is my role to not only protect the rights of my girls but other girls, too.”

– Adut Jacob

Reverend Abuk, Adut, Sheikh Musa and Bishop Ngor are part of a group of religious leaders who recently participated in the faith for positive change for children initiative in South Sudan. Inspired by the initiative they have left the capital to go back to their communities to continue working and nurturing commitments to respect, protect and start movements in support of the rights of children especially the girl-child.

Women in South Sudan are at risk of gender-based violence at any age, any time of the year and any geographical location, UNICEF team is continuously and tirelessly working on strengthening existing and building new partnerships to make sure that girls grow up feeling protected, supported and empowered.

“Despite improvements in girls’ education, too many girls are still denied the opportunity to attend school. Lack of education is both a risk factor and a negative result of child marriage,” says Kerida McDonald, UNICEF’s Senior Advisor for Communication for Development. “Faith leaders and faith-based organizations are most centrally positioned to influence the ending of child marriage and therefore increasing girls’ education and their chances to fulfill their potential.”

Religious leader hold up cards with hashtag phrases
UNICEF South Sudan/2019/Chol

Through the faith and positive change for children initiative, UNICEF is partnering with faith-based institutions and religious leaders to promote positive social and behavior change in communities by sensitizing, creating awareness and mobilizing communities to respect and realize the rights of children.

More than twenty religious’ leaders from all around South Sudan pledged their allegiance to speak against child marriage in their communities, to educate parents and to work towards the change that will bring respect and true understanding of the value the rights of all children in South Sudan.

UNICEF in collaboration with the South Sudan Council of Churches and the World Food Programme have signed a joint memorandum of understanding to work together to promote peace and realize the rights of children in South Sudan.

UNICEF will continue to work with faith-based organizations, the government and other partners throughout South Sudan to promote positive social and behavior change in communities.