Girls in South Sudan marry young – typically, at 12 or 14. In many tribes, girls are considered to be ready for marriage as soon as they reach puberty. Sometimes girls who do not feel they are ready for marriage will try to hide their periods for as long as possible. By the age of eighteen, a woman who is still single and without children will often be stigmatized as unmarriageable.
For people living in South Sudan, marriage is generally not a choice, but an obligation. Everyone is expected to marry and raise a family. Men are generally encouraged to marry as many wives as possible toward this aim.
Marriages are arranged, and there are several reasons parents may want to marry their daughters early: The groom’s family pays a “bride price” in cows to the girl’s family (the number of cows paid varies according to the tribe and region). Sources of income in South Sudan are limited, so there is a financial incentive to marry off daughters in order to collect the bride price. In a poor family, an older girl may be seen as an economic burden for the family. Early marriage is also seen as a strategy to prevent girls from becoming pregnant outside of marriage, which is not well accepted. Parents may also think that marrying their daughter will help protect her from sexual assault, which was a common tactic during the civil war.
Not uncommonly, girls are married to men much older than they are, or to men who already have one or more wives. Marriage nearly always means the end of education for girls who are attending school. It can lead to other problems too, such as complications of pregnancy and domestic abuse. Young girls whose bodies are not fully developed are more likely to develop problems during pregnancy and childbirth.
The Child Act was passed into law in South Sudan in October 2008, which technically makes it illegal to force a girl under 18 to marry, and also illegal to prevent a girl who is a mother from continuing her education after one year of lactation. It does not prohibit early marriage per se, only forcing the girl to marry. However, many early marriages continue to take place despite the girl’s objections.
Pictured below is a girl from St. Bakhita Primary School in Narus, Sudan. For now she remains unmarried and in school, but every year several of her classmates leave school at term breaks, are married off during the brief interval, and do not return when the school reopens.