Nyamal, 13, returns home from a nearby school in her rural village of Maar. She barely rests when her dad, 50, calls upon her. Another middle-aged man also sits by, excited for one reason or another. He comes from a distant neighborhood. He would like his son, Nhial to get married to Nyamal before his 15th birthday.
Nhial’s elder brother, a primary school dropout, married at the same age three years back. He is now a father of two before his 17th birthday. Nyamal comes from a humble background. Cattle are rare in her household, and options are limited. She has only two choices; marry early or die. She knew her sister committed suicide hardly a year now. The government did not make any arrest despite the vice being a criminal offense.
This fictional tale presents us with many things; first, it tells us that child marriage in South Sudan is not only a matter of law but of entrenched tradition and cultural norms. Secondly, it educates us about the limited choices children have on this matter. Thirdly, it brings out the role poverty plays in the perpetuation of early child marriages. But most importantly, it opens our eyes to the absence of the South Sudanese government in combating the crime.
What then, is the solution?
In the Einsteinian view, first, we must monetize the vice. If child marriage happens because of poverty, then put a dollar on it by problematizing it. The good news is that research has found an adverse link between child marriage and economic development. Make Nyamal’s and Nhial’s dad understand that they are not solving the problem by marrying their kids off at 13 and 14 respectively. Instead, they are complicating their economic status.
This advocacy must target both genders as opposed to the current proposition which focuses on the girl child. We are fighting a long-held tradition; a tradition that has been inherited through patriarchy. Leaving Nhial’s or Nyamal’s out does not solve the equation. It actually worsens it. So a massive education campaign is a MUST DO.
We also need to educate the girls. In South Sudan, traditional norms have an adverse influence on the girl child. Although there is convincing evidence that child marriage cuts across the two genders, girls carry the biggest load. So government and other relevant players such as the World Bank and Oxfam must inject funds into building gender-sensitive schools. If a woman is educated, the rest becomes history.
Finally, government intervention is important. The government can play two critical roles; first by implementing existing laws by being more responsive and proactive. So far, the South Sudan government does very little to address this problem. The existence of high and inconsistent bride prices, for instance, explains its absence. Can’t South Sudan do without bride price?
Then there is a need for empowerment. The government must involve youth in gender decision making. For example, it should give relevant ministries and dockets to women. This works elsewhere as we witness in Rwanda and Liberia.