Marriage: A Social Contract or a Business Transaction in South Sudan?

In 2017, I became a member of the Interagency Task Force on Ending Child Marriage-South Sudan; a Multi-Stakeholder Taskforce comprising of related Government Ministries, Civil Society, and UN agencies established to Co-ordinate and implement the Road Map and development of the Strategic National Action Plan on Ending Child Marriage in South Sudan, and to hold each other accountable. This was spearheaded by United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA-South Sudan)

In June 2018, we successfully launched the “End Child Marriage in South Sudan: Strategic National Action Plan (SNAP) 2017-2030”. My organization, Crown The Woman-South Sudan being one of the National Nongovernmental Organisations that took part in the strategy development process and works with mostly adolescent girls and boys, UNFPA-South Sudan partnered with us after the launch to start an awareness-raising campaign “Too Young to be Married” to engage school-going girls and boys, educators and guardians in conversations on Child Marriage.

This process brought back a lot of memories from my early teenage years’ of unwarranted marriage proposals. From the early 2000s, a lot of “lost boys” started repatriating funds to their relatives back in different parts of Africa especially back home and in the neighbouring countries where many Southern Sudanese lived as refugees to get for them young brides. The simple fact that the men who expressed interest were from “abroad” was a reason enough for the girls approached to either be expected to feel special or actually feel special.

Given the war and the economic hardships back home and in the refugee camps, the burden of family economic security was often placed on young girls who mostly accepted marriage proposals to men they didn’t even physically know because that guaranteed financial support to their families, and for some, access to education for their brothers or any close male relatives then. Economically able men whether abroad or from within the country marrying underage and illiterate girls from poor economic backgrounds has become a norm in South Sudan. Some of the “Lost Boys” are partially responsible for this commercialziation of marriage especially from the early 2000s when they started competing for young girls back in Africa and paying high bride price. A practice that became so common mostly in refugee camps, every family wished their daughters be married by “lost boys” because that somehow meant financial security.

Economically able men whether abroad or from within the country marrying underage and illiterate girls from poor economic backgrounds has become a norm in South Sudan

Among the many ways through which unwarranted marriage proposals were made, some found ways to speak to the girls directly while others did it through their relatives who identified for them young brides, these were the people who did all the “vetting” on ground. I vividly remember this one particular time when a prominent well-respected church lady came home with her brothers’ in-law who claimed to have identified me from Kabowa church in Kampala, which I attended, as someone well suited for one of their brothers in the United States of America.

In the Dinka Bor culture, when a man is interested in a girl, he comes home and just stands for as long as he can until the girl welcomes him home to sit. An indication that its either him interested in the girl or someone close to him. This has, of course, evolved. I remember sitting there with the three of them, my two young aunties and elder sister who were my “spokespeople” in the living room literally speechless with tears just rolling down my cheeks. Later that day I was scolded by one aunty saying, “crying in front of those people was embarrassing”.

My father has more girls than boys, and never in our lives have we ever felt treated differently because of our gender. He often said “I am investing in you for your future, not because I want anything in return. If you mess that up, know that you are the one who will suffer, not me”. I was certain that he would never force me into anything or do anything I don’t want to especially when it comes to marriage. That assurance was what kept my heart at peace during those times. The church lady and her brothers’ in-law after several unsuccessful attempts eventually left me alone.

Some of the “lost boys” are partially responsible for this commercialziation of marriage especially from the early 2000s when they started competing for young girls back in Africa and paying high bride price

However, there is a completely different reality for many South Sudanese girls. “52% of girls in South Sudan are married before their 18th birthday and 9% are married before the age of 15” Many girls feel powerless and lack the agency to refuse child and forced marriage because they believe they have no rights. Broadly, several economic and social factors continue to drive child and forced marriage in South Sudan but the current commercialization of marriage makes many young girls even more vulnerable to forced and child marriage.

There is absolutely nothing “cultural” about the current wedding processes especially amongst certain sections of Nilotes in South Sudan who happen to be the majority and known for attaching so much value to bride price among other things. While the parents/guardians are asking for ridiculous amounts of cattle and or money for bride price, (for some, the higher the level of education, the higher the bride price), weddings are not everyday experiences so, some young couples wish to have memorable weddings which means doing two weddings in one for some; the ‘traditional’ and the ‘white’ wedding. Don’t get me wrong, the beauty in these celebrations can feel priceless but really, none of these is cost effective given how communal South Sudanese especially Dinka marriages are. I often wonder if anyone at all really cares how the young couple will start off their new life after honeymoon, thats if they can even still afford to have one by the end of this process.

In as much as there are contradictions in the legal framework in South Sudan such as the unclear definition of “marriageable age”, the laws on paper generally recognise and protect the rights of the girl child. In addition to the legal framework and other efforts such as the Strategic Action Plan on Ending Child Marriage in South Sudan by 2030, South Sudan is a signatory to various regional and international instruments such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), The African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of Children that the parliament passed clearly and strongly prohibits child marriage as well as the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Laws, policies and strategic plans continue to be drafted and passed but end up sitting on office shelves especially in public institutions meant to spearhead them. Political will comes with a national budget allocation and commitments that make implementation of laws, policies and programs possible, which South Sudan lacks. Unless Donors pick up the ball and get it rolling, nothing moves but for how long are Nongovernmental Organisations going to continue to perform government’s tasks? Its one thing to wish to protect the girl child but its another to actually commit to it. No country can progress when almost half of its population is expected to be dependent and unable to meaningfully contribute beyond their households.

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