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Girls not brides: ending child marriage in South Sudan

Find out about the pioneering work in South Sudan that’s been an answer to prayer for schoolgirls in the country.

Rosemary Wilfred | 13 Jan 2023

A mother and daughter hug one another

A mother and daughter hug one another | Image credit: Kieran Dodds/Tearfund

Warning

Contains mentions of sexual and gender-based violence that some readers may find upsetting.

When a girl can go to school and become an active member of society, instead of being forced to marry young, everything can change for a community. Meet the people of South Sudan who have seen this change for themselves – and who are leading the way to ensure that every child can thrive, no matter their sex.

Eighteen months ago, Tearfund and Food for the Hungry – an organisation we partner with in South Sudan – began working with communities in Jonglei state using our pioneering Transforming Masculinities programme. This addresses the root causes of sexual and gender-based violence and shifts social norms around women and around girls that lead to this violence.

We ran training sessions and workshops with religious leaders, community leaders, schoolchildren and families, where the harms of child marriage were discussed. Through these sessions, people understood the needs of survivors of sexual and gender-based violence and were equipped with the knowledge and skills to be a part of ending the problem.

‘I think God has heard my prayer – that’s why he sent this type of training to transform people like me and my parents.’
Nyamal, aged 14, South Sudan

Dangerous

In rural communities in South Sudan, families often have limited resources, and so boys are sent to school instead of girls. In 2019, girls only made up 35 per cent of students enrolled in secondary schools.

Girls are instead married off at a young age. It is common to hear parents speak of their daughters as their source of income. This is because an arranged marriage of a young girl to an older man often brings the girl’s family wealth that is measured in cows. Some girls bring their families up to 200 cows and often, these cows are later used as a dowry payment for the family to pay for wives for their sons.

Child marriage not only stops girls from achieving their full potential, but it also is extremely dangerous for them. When girls become pregnant before their bodies are ready, they often suffer more complications during pregnancy and childbirth – endangering both the life of the mother and child.

The change begins

Lul*, a 17-year old boy, attended the training with his mother, a deaconess from a local Anglican church.

‘The first positive change is that my mother was able to influence my father to allow us all to go to school,’ shares Lul, who is overjoyed that his sister has been allowed to go to school as well.

‘I have also influenced more than five of my friends and now they have enrolled as well and we are in the same class.

‘I have also learnt about the equality of boys and girls, men and women – no child is more important… Now I do everything at home like bringing water, washing my clothes, sweeping my rooms, and I help my sisters.’

‘God has heard my prayer’

‘Life used to be unbearable,’ shares 14-year-old Nyamal*, who was pressured by her parents to drop out of school.

Nyamal’s parents saw her work around the house as more important than going to school. The more school she missed due to domestic chores and fetching water, the more she fell behind in her studies. She was soon so behind that she felt it was easier to drop out of school than continue.

But Nyamal was identified by the school as someone who would benefit from the training by Tearfund.

‘I attended nine weeks of teaching that helped me a lot, it changed my idea about dropping out of school and to love school more than before,’ shares Nyamal.

Nyamal also learnt about the dangers of child marriage. Through the training she felt empowered to talk about this to her parents, who were in the process of agreeing for her to be married off to an elderly man.

‘I explained everything I learned to my father and mother and they agreed that I should continue with my education and I hope I will make it up to university,’ says Nyamal.

The arranged marriage was cancelled and Nyamal has the freedom to go to school. Her parents have also reduced the chores she does to allow her time to study.

‘I think God has heard my prayer – that’s why he sent this type of training to transform people like me and my parents,’ says Nyamal.

‘There is nothing a man can do that a woman cannot do.’
Pal Juol Duac, Paramount Chief of the Yuai community, South Sudan

Women empowered

Inequality between men and women is a root cause of violence. After the Transforming Masculinities work, people have seen a reduction in conflict in their homes and within the community. It has also opened up opportunities for women to participate in everyday life.

‘We have also learnt that women have the power to carry out any responsibility in the community,’ shares Pal Juol Duac, Paramount Chief of the Yuai community.

‘There is nothing a man can do that a woman cannot do, especially if she is educated… The training they have given us has transformed our community – the situation has greatly improved.’

Mary, a deaconess in a local church, shares how women are now invited to meetings with men on tackling issues in the community – before they were not allowed to be a part of this.

‘We, the Uror women, have been suffering, but when [Tearfund] came, we were able to realise our rights,’ shares Mary.

What’s next?

Tearfund has trained up members of the community to become gender champions. They are able to continue to run training sessions and help to reduce sexual and gender-based violence.

Gatluak Riks, one of these gender champions, is keen to continue to share these important messages.

‘So I said, first you can send your daughters to school in order to know their rights and to get the privileges that men get. And from there, all this violence could be reduced,’ shares Gatluak.

Tearfund is also piloting a ‘role model approach’ by recording videos of dynamic and successful women who have been able to break barriers and excel in life. These videos will be shown to schoolgirls to inspire them and to let them know that it is possible to succeed and get an education.

The hope is that these videos will give girls positive role models who can give them a vision of how they can grow up to achieve their God-given potential.

Please pray with us for an end to child marriage and for the continuation of this vital work.

Pray with us

Almighty God,

We lament that girls who are created in your glorious image are not treated equally in society today – that they are subjected to sexual and gender-based violence, including child marriage. We acknowledge this injustice and pray for an end to all these forms of violence and abuse.

We pray for the success of programmes like Transforming Masculinities in South Sudan. Lord, provide funding for them and wisdom for the teams who run them, so they are able to reach even more communities. We pray for the protection of girls who are at risk of child marriage today – let there be successful interventions that will stop the marriage and enable them to continue with school.

Thank you God for how you have shown us through scripture that you view women and girls as worthy of respect and that you loathe violence against them. Help guide us to how we can speak up and make changes in our own lives to end violence against women and enable them to thrive in all areas of their lives.

Amen.

*Names changed to protect identities

  Rosemary Wilfred

Media and Communications Manager, South Sudan Team

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