In South Sudan, child, early and forced marriages often happen for financial reasons. When a community action group in Aweil East heard about an attempted child marriage in their town, they brought community members together to prevent it from happening. Read their story below.
In Aweil East, north-western South Sudan, the high level of gender-based violence (GBV) is a major concern for many national and international organisations, particularly women’s rights organisations in the area. Among the many types of GBV impacting women and girls; child, early and forced marriages (CEFM) that stem from patriarchal norms is wide-spread across the country at 52% (pre-COVID-19 average). This practice has devastating consequences on girls and young women, putting them at greater risk of physical and sexual violence, limiting their access to education and economic opportunities, and increasing the chance of life-threatening complications during pregnancy and childbirth.
“Early marriage has been rampant in our community and it has been there in our culture, but now we need to discourage it, because it burdens women most with responsibility.” Adut Kuol, community member.
Earlier this year in Malualkon town in Aweil East, the Community Action Group (CAG) – a group of volunteers working to tackle and prevent problems in the community which also has a women’s group and a youth group to create spaces for everyone to voice their concerns safely – identified a critical case of attempted child marriage during their women’s group meeting. The case, involving a 12-year-old girl named Abuk*, was brought up by a distant relative of Abuk to a member of the group at the local market. When this was brought to the CAG meeting, the case surprised many of the women in the group. They learned Abuk was being forcefully married out by her father to a 42-year-old man, Mr. Majok*, to cover a debt the father owed.
The practice of using a bride price (payment by groom’s family to the bride’s family in the form of cattle) as a business transaction to cover debt or to pay for living expenses, regardless of the girl’s age, is common in many parts of South Sudan. CEFM and bride price have both increased since the eruption of the civil war in 2013. This has contributed to the practice of polygyny where men have more than one wife in order to produce girl children to receive multiple bride prices, and to related increased cycles of violence and revenge killings in the midst of limited socio-economic options.
In this case, the father of Abuk had borrowed three sacks of sorghum grain from Mr. Majok during the lean season in July 2020, to be paid back after the harvest period at the end of the year. When Mr. Majok demanded his three bags of sorghum back, the father could not afford to repay the debt and proposed the early marriage of his daughter to Mr. Majok in exchange.
After initially asking about the case, the CAG decided to take action with the support of the town administration, Saferworld and partner Action for Children’s Foundation (ACDF).
The community group quickly held a meeting with family members of Abuk to discuss the problem and emphasise the harmful impacts of child marriage. They stressed the impact of the early marriage on Abuk’s education and ultimately her future. Abuk’s father said he was willing to reverse his decision, but noted that he still wouldn’t be able to pay back the three sacks of sorghum. CAG members assured the family that they would work to gather resources to pay back the debt.
Following the meeting with Abuk’s family, the CAG was able to pay back Abuk’s father’s debt to Mr. Majok using sorghum grain contributed by community members. By doing so, they prevented the forced marriage from taking place and Abuk was able to stay at home with her family.
This intervention is part of long-term work conducted by the CAGs, with support from ACDF on child protection and rights. ACDF aims to shift perceptions on patriarchal practices such as early and forced marriage, share referral pathways in the community and intervene in urgent situations. Over time, members of the community group have gained trust in the community as they collaborate with local authorities who attend their regular meetings to find solutions. This has elevated the importance of gender-related issues and women’s rights at the community level and with local government.
Garang Aguer, CAG Chair, says that the group is committed to working with communities in Aweil East in resolving GBV cases and that is the only way to instil peace and safety for everyone. The CAG work is also recognised by the area’s Boma chief (the lowest-level administrative division), Geng Aguer, who encouraged them to double their efforts and help more villages. He promised his readiness to work with the action group whenever his support is needed.
The CAG continues to work on gender-related issues, particularly its women’s group where they share their experiences and hold regular awareness-raising events on women’s rights with the wider community. Where Abuk lives, there is still work to do to shift cultural perceptions of early and forced marriage, where men who own and look after resources make decisions impacting the family without informing or consulting the women and girls involved. However, earlier this year at a regional event that brought together CAGs from different parts of the country, CAG members in Aweil showed the progress that has been made on promoting women’s involvement in decision making at family and community-level, and women are feeling more confident to challenge decisions that impact their lives.
*Not real name.
The project is funded by the European Union though Saferworld.