Interviews

Peace talks derail efforts to end early marriage in S. Sudan

School girls, photo credit: unknown

South Sudan’s Foreign Affairs Director of International Organizations in Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Amb. Agnes Oswaha, says it’s just a matter of time before President Salva Kiir Mayardit enacts the Maputo protocol aimed at protecting the rights of women and girl children.

Ambassador Oswaha called for all South Sudanese to be patient and keep hope alive as women justice groups called for an urgent signing of the law aimed at protecting women and children’s  during a joint Civil Society Organisations Stakeholder meeting, last week.

It’s just a matter of time

“The president would have signed the protocol but he has been dealing with peace issues,” she said during a campaign by a women’s advocacy group Steward Women urging Parliament to enact the protocol.

“His focus has been on Addis Ababa and also within Sudan too,” she said, adding that President Kiir is a champion on women’s rights and signing the important priority for him.

Steward Women Program Director, Josephine Chandiru, who leads the campaign said the Maputo Protocol is the main continental and regional legal instrument which can be used by women to bring cases before all court in absence of family law in South Sudan.

Chandiru said the protocol will promote, protect and advance the rights of women and girls in the country when enacted as a law hence and will contribute significantly to ending child marriages in the country.

The African Charter’s Protocol on Human Rights and the Rights of Women, also known as the Maputo Protocol guarantees comprehensive rights to women, including the right to take part in the political process and the protection against Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) practice.

The protocol was drafted in 1995, signed by 49 signatories in Maputo-Mozambique in July 2003. The law  effect two years later in November 2005 with efforts from the African Union Commission.

According  to a 2012 Human Rights Watch report close to half or (48%) of girls between 15 and 19 are married or have been forced into marriage in South Sudan.

The report states that girls are often viewed as financial burdens, particularly for families living in poverty, and marriages are seen as ways for acquiring assets for families, including cattle, money, and other gifts.

More than half of girls are married before the age of 18

Despite South Sudan’s child law restricting the marriage age to 18 – the practice is still widespread in the country with more than half of girls are married before the age of 18 according to recent reports.

“Enact the marriage laws through the Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs, ratify the Maputo Protocol, ensure access to reproductive education and healthcare for all girls and women in urban and rural areas,” said South Sudan’s Vice President James Wanni Igga during the launch of South Sudan’s Strategic Plan to end girl child marriage in the country.

South Sudan’s Vice President James Wanni Igga also added to calls urging parliament to ratify the Maputo Protocol which protects the rights of women and girls as part of efforts to ending early child marriage.

The South Sudanese parliament ratified the Maputo protocol in October 2017, but the document is still waiting for a final signature fro the president.

The United Nations’ Population Fund (UNFPA) Country Director, Mary Otieno, says over 60,000 women in South Sudan are suffering from fistula; an abnormal passageway between two or more body parts that are normally joined together which can develop in the body because of infection surgery or injury, the main cause of which are early marriages and poor health care facilities to ensure safe child birth.

“Epidemiological evidence indicates that three percent of the women who are in the reproductive age; that is from the age of 15 to 49, have got fistula and when you do the calculation for the population of South Sudan, we have about 89 thousand women who are living with fistula in South Sudan today,”  said Dr. Alexander Dimiti, the Director for Reproductive health at South Sudan’s Ministry of Health.

He added that fistula remains a leading health problem among women in South Sudan, with about three percent of women experiencing fistula complications.

Culture rigidities fuel early child marriage

According to Jame Kolok, the Executive Director of Foundation for Democracy and Accountable Governance, South Sudan’s cultural rigidities including the socio-economic conditions of communities are what is causing early child marriages in the country.

“I think the recent statistics have stated very clearly that why we have a larger proportions of girl child in our communities, this past violence has created an environment where the few girls who are actually supposed to go to school end up leaving their communities because of displacement,” said Kolok.  Other challenges include the poor state of the economy which makes it difficult for parents to send their children to school.

“The situation has created some of kind of thinking that the little money we have could be used to send the boys to school other than girls.” Jame explained.

Jame warned South Sudanese elites and citizens that the moment the law is enacted,  it will be used to  get rid of those who violate it without fear of who they are, what they do and where they come from.

The Action Plan for ending child marriages that was launched last month focuses on provision of legal environment to protect children, improved access to quality and equitable sexual reproductive education and educate parents to change dominant thinking and norms.

Child marriage is illegal in South Sudan, South Sudan’s Child Act of 2008 states that anyone found contradicting the law faces up to seven years of prison, however the law is rarely enforced. The United Nations estimates that 52 percent of girls are married before their 18 birthday in South Sudan, the fifth highest rate of child marriage in the world.