Women activists in South Sudan have redoubled their efforts to stem child marriage practice in the country after what they call a barbaric auctioning of a 17-year-old girl.
A recent Facebook post prepared for the auction showed a tall, expressionless girl standing next to a shorter smiling man. The post, dated October 25, said the business tycoon, who became the highest bidder, offered 500 cows, 10,000 U.S. dollars and three cars for the girl.
Those involved in the bidding included a Deputy Governor of Gok State and a senior Sudanese government official.
After the case became public, Eastern Lakes State Information Minister Taban Abel told Reuters that the girl, identified as Nyalong, has gone into hiding in Juba, but did provide any further details about her current status. No action has been taken against the culprits.
“Child marriage is outright wrong, yet it is deeply entrenched in the culture of the country,” @UNFPASouthSudan Country Representative Mary Otieno tells @TIME’s @elimeixler: https://t.co/4DM1cZZJKg#ENDChildMarriage
— UNFPA (@UNFPA) November 23, 2018
On Tuesday, National Alliance for Women Lawyers walked to South Sudan National Assembly petitioning against the incident, asking the lawmakers makers to act immediately and end child marriage.
“South Sudan continues to witness public outrageous acts of child marriage, traditional and customary practices which violate women’s rights,” said Monica Adiu, the Acting Executive Director for the National Alliance for Women Lawyers.
“Some of the known offenders engaging in these acts of child marriage and bidding competition of girls are constitutional post holders, senior government officials, and military generals,” she noted.
In South Sudan, Article 26(1) of the 2008 Child Act deems child marriage illegal, but Adiu said the law has been violated under the watch of lawmakers.
The Women Alliance is calling on the South Sudan Parliament, the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Gender to promptly act and bring perpetrators to justice.
As condemnations of the incident went viral, many have pointed at the role of Facebook in the process, blaming the platform for allowing such a post. Facing backlash, Facebook told Reuters that it removed the post and the user from its platform for violating community standards.
Some commentators have noticed, however, that the auctioning practice has spread in many communities in South Sudan, primarily among the Dinka people, and many girls suffer in silence under the pretext of custom and culture.
The Dinka, the largest ethnic group in Sudan, and many of the other peoples, practice paying with cows for a bride. Typically, a man identifies a girl he wants to marry and approaches her parents. They ask the bidder how much is prepared to pay. As the information about the negotiation becomes public, more bidders may approach that particular family. The age of the girl doesn’t play a role in the process.
“It happens every day, the issue [is] that Nyalong’s case came on social media, but there are many [cases] there that we are not seeing,” the Chairperson of the Women Parliamentary Caucasus Dusman Joyce said.
Article 15 od South Sudan’s Transitional Constitution, defines anyone under the age of 18 as a child and states that anybody of marriageable age is allowed to marry a partner of his or her choice. However, it does not clearly state that 18 is a marriageable age or condemn marriage for younger people.
The Constitution also allows marriages determined by customary laws among the 64 tribes of South Sudan, creating a dilemma.
Aluel Naomi from Crown the Woman, a women’s right advocacy group, told The Globe Post that South Sudan lawmakers must commit to international laws they have ratified and fix the legal marriageable age once and for all.
“If you are condemning this act but you allow customary law, which is a very big contradiction, there is no way that we can actually win this case, if we don’t have the Constitution as the supreme law without having to bend back on the customary laws,” she said.
Naomi added that the incident is a setback for the efforts aimed at ending child marriage in South Sudan by 2030.
“If you hear the case where a governor is involved, the same people who came to the launch of the strategic action to end child marriage in South Sudan by 2030, this is not a promising message,” she said.
Unless there is accountability, it will be a long way to end the barbaric acts against women, Naomi noted. She said the top officials involved in the auction should be asked to resign as a message to deter the rest of the public from future bidding.
Awel Mawin, Deputy Speaker at the National Legislative Assembly, said it is possible to change this deeply rooted culture only through massive awareness campaigns.
“It [the auctioning] is being done in less developed communities. The challenges are that we have to work hard to raise the level of awareness of our people because law alone cannot [do it]. You can say that this thing should not be done, but it cannot be implemented.”