Within the South Sudan, nearly half of girls between the ages of 15 and 19 are married. Human Right Watch’s report, This Old Man Can Feed Us, You Will Marry Him, details the devastating impact of child marriage in the world’s youngest country. As in much of the world, typically when a girl in the South Sudan marries she withdraws from school, and her lack of education makes her economically dependent on her new husband. She goes to live with him, and so the husband begins to raise his own wife. The new bride likely loses access to social and health resources, lives isolated from her peers and faces risk of marital rape and domestic violence. According to WHO, if she becomes pregnant her life is at risk, as pregnancy and childbirth remain the leading cause of death for adolescent girls in lower income countries.
On May 5th of this year, the South Sudan ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, positioning itself to curtail child marriage within its borders. Yet many children are among the over 500,000 South Sudanese who have fled to international borders to escape the ongoing violence of the country. So does child marriage follow South Sudanese girls outside of their homeland?
In South Sudanese refugee camps in Ethiopia, child marriage can transition to child marriage by abduction. When South Sudanese families are no longer living amid their clan, fathers hesitate to marry off their daughters to relative strangers. Rather than delaying marriage age, this hesitation sometimes leads single young men to seek out their brides- and abduct them at night. Knowing that the neither the fathers nor the girls will consent to the marriage, the young men physically take the brides to shelters, raping them and announcing to family and friends that they now have a wife. Given the shame and stigma around abduction and rape, the child and her family act as if they planned the wedding.
With little lighting, little security and overpopulation, these girls are stolen away with little notice. The next morning, the abductions, called “raids,” are briefly mentioned in security reports. A girl’s fate is sealed on official records.
Displacement increases the vulnerability of all peoples, and it disproportionately increases the vulnerability of girls. Given the complexities of displacement, child marriage can be elusive, with its victims literally disappearing into the night. Still, organizations are taking notice and beginning to take measures, such as installation of comprehensive lighting, to make the camps safer. While organizations like Human Rights Watch, Girls Not Brides and the Women’s Refugee Commission continue to advocate on behalf of child brides, we must continue to back their efforts. Their work is only as strong as our concern.