Girls, Child Marriage, and Education in Red Sea State, Sudan: Perspectives on Girls’ Freedom to Choose

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1 Introduction

Child marriage is any formal marriage or informal union where one or both parties are under 18 years of age. Child marriage affects both boys and girls, but disproportionately affects girls. Each year, 15 million girls are married before the age of 18, and that number is growing. Worldwide, 700 million women alive today were married before their 18th birthday and more than one in three girls are married before age of 15 (UNICEF 2014a, 1). Although the largest numbers of child brides are in South Asia, most of the countries with the highest prevalence of child marriage are in Africa (African Union 2015a, 3). Sudan is among the African countries with a high prevalence of child marriage. In Sudan, 10.7% of women aged 15 to 49 were married before the age of 15, and 38s% were married before the age of 18 (CBS and UNICEF 2010).

Child marriage is a human rights violation affecting children’s and women’s rights to health, education, equality, non-discrimination, and freedom from violence and exploitation. Child marriage has harmful effects on young girls. Neither physically nor emotionally ready to become wives and mothers, child marriage exposes young girls to a wide range of health risks. The minds and bodies of young girls are physically unprepared for sexual activity and childbirth, increasing the risks of maternal health complications. Early pregnancy increases the risk of both maternal and child mortality. Added to that, girl brides are more likely to suffer domestic violence and marital rape. Child brides are rarely allowed to continue their education. With limited access to education and subsequent economic opportunities, child brides and their families are more likely to live in poverty.

In recent years, child marriage has received great attention on international and national development agendas. The UN Sustainable Development Goals, adopted in September 2015, include eliminating child marriage as a key target for advancing gender equality by 2030.
This goal may help sustain international attention and enhance political will at the national level in states with a high prevalence of child marriage. According to UNICEF’s 2015 report A Profile of Child Marriage in Africa, the prevalence of child marriage has been slowly declining in Africa, but remains higher than the global average.3 The fastest progress in reducing child marriage in Africa has been in the northern part of the continent.

Child marriage in Sudan has received heightened attention since late 2016 when it emerged as a recommendation from the UN after Sudan presented its Universal Periodic Report (United Nations 2016a; 2016b). In addition, the topic has recently come onto the public agenda in the context of reforming the Muslim Personal Law of 1991. That law sets the minimum age of marriage at tamyeez (“maturity”), which is 10 years old under the law. Furthermore, under the 1991 law, a woman needs a male guardian (a father, brother, or uncle) to contract her marriage. When the 1991 act was passed, the Islamic government of the time employed religious arguments to defend the legalization of child marriage. However, both government and civil society are now working for both legal and social change. In particular, the NGO Sudan Organization for Research and Development (SORD) has advocated for legal reform of the 1991 law’s provisions on child marriage. The SEEMA Center has also turned its attention to child marriage, particularly by working with victims. In December 2015, the Sudanese government launched the African Union campaign to end child marriage in Africa (African Union 2015b). In addition, the National Council for Child Welfare (NCCW), under supervision of the Sudan’s minister of social welfare, has formulated a strategy for abandoning the practice, which is in process of being endorsed by the Cabinet of Ministers.

While there has been no legal reform of the Muslim Personal Law of 1991at the time of this report, the 2010 National Child Act defines “child” as a person below the age of 18. The 2010 law also includes provisions protecting children against all forms of discrimination, and, accordingly, it has been used as a platform to advocate for legal reform of the minimum age of marriage. However, this initiative has met resistance from religious conservative groups, who continue to argue that the practice of child marriage is in accordance with Sharia. On the other hand, women continue to fight to end child marriage in Sudan, pointing to its multiple harmful effects, both nationally and sub-nationally. In Red Sea State, a handful of local NGOs, community-based organizations, and the Red Sea State Child Welfare Council have engaged in continual awareness raising efforts on the harmful effects of child marriage.

This report investigates child marriage in Red Sea State, which is located in Sudan’s eastern region. Red Sea State is one of Sudan’s most gender conservative areas, and 32.2% of married women ages 20 to 49 were married before age 18. Women in Red Sea State are frequently denied an education and pressurized to get married. A staggering 89% of women there have been subjected to the harmful practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) in the name of tradition and culture.

This report explores local communities’ attitudes toward child marriage in Red Sea State.6 The research is an addition to the very limited number of studies on the current situation of women and children’s rights in eastern Sudan (see Fadllala 2007; Agnes 1998; Khalid 2013).
To date, there is no research tackling child marriage in Red Sea State.

The main objectives of the research are as follows:

  • to understand the attitudes of the communities in the Red Sea State localities of Port Sudan and Haya towards the education and marriage of girls and boys;
  • to gain insight into the arguments for and decision-making process behind child marriage;
  • to cast light on the risks associated with child marriage, as perceived by the communities in Port Sudan and Haya;
  • to highlight the experiences of girls who continue education instead of getting married; and • to gain knowledge on how the local communities perceive awareness-raising campaigns to end child marriage.

This research is significant because Sudan has categorized child marriage as a form of violence against women and has issued a national plan (2012–2016) to eradicate the practice. Child marriage is a top priority on the agendas of the NCCW and international, national, and local organizations. Our research findings suggest that child marriage is a culturally articulated form of denying girls’ rights, including the freedom to decide whom to marry and when to enter into marriage. In the culture of the ethnic groups of Red Sea State, pubescent girls are stereotyped as being prone to promiscuous behavior that potentially damages the family and the ethnic group’s honor.

Our findings suggest that attitudes towards child marriage in Red Sea State are slowly changing, as indicated by the fact that an increasing number of unmarried girls and young women are finishing school and entering universities. However, they do this at the social cost of being stigmatized as agir (“unfertile”) or bayra (“not demanded for marriage”). And despite progress in changing attitudes, the practice of child marriage is still widespread, particularly in rural areas.

Several factors explain continuity of the practice of child marriage. First, it is a deeply rooted traditional practice. The most stated reason for practicing child marriage among respondents was tradition, called the silif in Red Sea State. Second, child marriage remains legal under the Muslim Personal Law of 1991, which means that any child marriage abandonment programs would contravene the law and would likely be aborted by religious groups. Against the backdrop of an authoritarian state that legalizes child marriage, it is difficult for anti-child marriage activists to advocate for the eradication of the practice without being seen as antigovernment. This means that awareness raising campaigns in Red Sea State take a “soft” approach; activists do not speak in what the Sudanese would term a “loud voice.” Third, although there are both national and sub-national calls to end the practice, no stakeholders have issued a comprehensive strategy to support raising awareness on the harmful effects of child marriage. Finally, there is a link between education and child marriage, and the lack of educational facilities and the poor quality of education provided to girls creates an obstacle to ending the practice. Specifically, the curriculum in schools does not empower girls and their families to challenge gender discriminatory norms in order to protect girls against the harmful effects of child marriage. It is interesting to note that while “poverty is a major factor underlying child marriage,” according to UNFPA (2012, 12) and others, such as Girls Not Brides (n.d.–a) and Parsons et al. (2015), it was not among the most cited reason given for the continuation of the practice in Red Sea State.8 The main reason stated by our respondents was control of girls’ chastity, something which is inherently linked to gender discriminatory norms and tradition of protecting the family and tribe’s honor.

The findings in this report can be used to design interventions aimed at ending child marriage, especially interventions aimed at changing norms that continue to support the practice, as well as to promote the rights of girls and women to decide whom and when to marry.