Women in Bor are demanding empowerment through education as a way to help them combat early and forced marriage in the conflict-affected country of South Sudan.
The women were taking part in a leadership forum organized as part of the 16 Days of Activism campaign against gender-based violence by the United Nations Mission in South Sudan’s gender unit in Bor, a town in the Jonglei region.
The chairperson of the Jonglei women’s association, Rachel Akuach, was among the 46 participants at the forum which recommended improving educational opportunities for women as the best way to eliminate early and forced marriage.
She said the continuing traditional practice is having a major impact on women’s health and socio-economic development in South Sudan.
Children are often forced into marriage because of poverty with their families relying on the dowry to survive but this posed major risks to the young woman’s health, said Rachel Akuach.
The decades-long war for liberation in South Sudan resulted in many woman becoming displaced or ending up as refugees, which denied them access to education and left many illiterate. South Sudan winning independence in 2011 sparked hope of accelerated learning programs, but the eruption of civil war two years later has again taken a huge toll on women.
Student, Agak Eli Ayom, said marriage should be a consultative process carried out at the legal age rather than forced on young girls who often face the risk of domestic violence.
“Early marriage in our community is not good as a girl child. It can be difficult if you want to take responsibilities at home simply because you had not prepared very well to become a mother,” she said.
”To be protected, I must be taken to school as a girl child. By the time I finish my education, I have to tell my parents that I want to get married at the age of 30 years when I am well prepared to be a mother.”
While legislation stipulates 18 as the legal age of marriage in South Sudan, it is not often enforced and traditional laws and practices are preferred where parents or other relatives make the decision to marry on behalf of both prospective spouses. This is considered a violation of human rights and in breach of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Transitional Constitution of the Republic of South Sudan.
The leadership dialogue forum in Bor was designed to encourage community stakeholders to eliminate early and forced marriage despite traditional practices.
UNMISS Gender Affairs Officer in Jonglei, Suzan Sesay, said the Mission would continue to work with local authorities and the communities to harmonize the laws for a better society.
“You and I know that culture is society’s construction of what should be done and how things should be carried out. So it is the people that constructed these structures and systems, it is also the people who should work together in order to modify those systems, practices and beliefs for the benefit of men, women, boys and girls,” she said.