Human Right Watch Report Calls For An End to Child Marriage

A Human Rights Watch (HRW) report has called for an end to child marriage in what it describes as a “widespread” practice in South Sudan.

Human Right Watch Calls For An End to Child Marriage
Gauri Van Gulik said the government of South Sudan should increase efforts to protect girls from child marriage. [Waakhe Simon Wudu]

By Waakhe Simon Wudu

JUBA, 7 March 2013 [Gurtong] - The organization said during a launch of a research report in South Sudan that unveiled early child marriage practices in the infant nation.

“The government of South Sudan should increase efforts to protect girls from child marriage,” Gauri Van Gulik, Global Advocate of Women’s Rights who launched the report said.

“The Country’s widespread child marriage exacerbates South Sudan’s pronounced gender gaps in school enrolment, contributes to soaring maternal mortality rates, and violates the right of girls to free from violence, and to marry only when they able and will to give their free consent,” she said.

According to government statistics, the HRW said close to half [48 percent] of South Sudanese girls between 15 and 19 are married, with some marrying as young as age 12.

The 95-page report dubbed “This Old Man Can Feed Us, You Will Marry Him:’ Child and Forced Marriage in South Sudan” documents the consequences of child marriage, the near total lack of protection for victims who try to resist marriage or leave abusive marriages, and the many obstacles they face in accessing mechanisms of redress.

It is based on interviews with 87 girls and women in Central Equatoria, Western Equatoria and Jonglei States as well as with government officials, traditional leaders, health care workers, legal and women’s rights experts, teachers, prison officials, and representatives of Non-governmental Organizations, the United Nations and donor organizations.

“Girls who have the courage to refuse early marriages are in dire need of protection, support, and education,” said Liesl Gerntholtz, women’s rights director at Human Rights Watch.

“The South Sudan government must make sure that there is a coordinated government response to cases of child marriage and more training for police and prosecutors on the right of girls to protection,” she urged.

The report recommends that the government clearly set 18 as the minimum age for marriage; ratify the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the Convention on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (CRC), and other human rights treaties; and pass comprehensive family legislation on marriage, separation, and divorce.

It pointed out that, Child marriage disrupts or ends a girl’s education, increases her risk of violence and abuse, and jeopardizes her health. Failure to combat child marriage is also likely to have serious implications for the future development of South Sudan, it cautioned, adding it constrains the education, health, security, and economic progress of women and girls, their families, and their communities.

The report highlights that, government statistics for 2011 show that only 39 percent of primary school students and 30 percent of secondary students are female.

Child marriage also puts girls at greater risk of death or ill-health because of early pregnancy and childbirth. Reproductive health studies show that young women face greater risks in pregnancy and child birth than older women, including life-threatening obstructed labor due to their smaller pelvises and immature bodies – problems accentuated by South Sudan’s limited prenatal and postnatal healthcare services.

Human Rights Watch further called on the South Sudanese government, with the support of its development partners, to: develop and implement a comprehensive national action plan to prevent and address the consequences of child marriage; and develop and implement guidelines on how national and state level government ministries and agencies should handle child marriage cases.

It should conduct training for relevant government and law enforcement officials about the legal rights of girls under the Child Act, particularly their right to be protected from child marriage;

Carry out a nationwide awareness-raising campaign to inform the public about the harms caused by child marriage; and work towards comprehensive reform of South Sudan’s laws on marriage, separation, divorce, and related matters; And take programmatic and policy measures to ensure that girls and women who seek help to fight forced marriages can receive it.

Worldwide, some 14 million girls are married before their 18thbirthday every year. A 2012 report by UNICEF shows that around one in three women aged 20-24 years were married before they reached 18 years of age, and around 11 percent entered into marriage before 15 years of age.

Child marriage occurs in practically every region of the world but occurs at higher rates in South Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin America and the Caribbean. HRW said South Sudan is among a number of countries with high rates of the practice.  

South Sudan women activists highly welcome the report and said it places activists and government in a position to draw appropriate policies to address the situation in the country.

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