Photo credit: Human Rights Watch
Child marriage rates
UNICEF 2017 % Married by 15
UNICEF 2017 % Married by 18
* Child marriage prevalence is the percentage of women 20-24 years old who were married or in union before they were 18 years old (UNICEF State of the World’s Children, 2017)
What's the child marriage rate? How big of an issue is child marriage?
According to UNICEF, South Sudan has the seventh highest prevalence rate of child marriage in the world.
Unlike in many countries, child marriage rates do not vary significantly among girls of different education levels, wealth indexes or rural or urban locality.
As South Sudan’s conflict enters its fifth year in 2018, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimates that 100,000 children have been directly affected by human rights violations and exploitation. High levels of instability, economic decline, erosion of services and malnutrition drive many families to marry off their daughters as a survival tactic.
Are there country-specific drivers of child marriage in this country?
Child marriage is driven by gender inequality and the belief that girls are somehow inferior to boys. In South Sudan, child marriage is also driven by:
- Poverty: Many poorer families marry off daughters in order to receive dowry (payments in the form of money, gifts or cattle, from future husbands). Due to instability, cattle raiding has become more common in South Sudan and some families are unable to feed their children. Cattle is now used as a currency in marriage transactions and many teenage girls are forced into marriage so their families can receive cows and survive. Some girls are “born so that people can eat”. If a man gathers more cattle, he can reportedly get more wives and children and strengthen this “clan”.
- Armed conflict: Many girls and women have been forced into marriage and prostitution during South Sudan’s conflict in order to survive. Girls and women with disabilities are at particular risk.
- Family honour: Some families marry off their daughters in order to shield them from pre-marital sex, which brings shame to families and lowers the amount of dowry girls can fetch when married.
- Weak legal frameworks: South Sudan lacks a strong legal framework and existing laws are poorly enforced. Perpetrators are able to continue forcing children into marriages with no repercussions.
- Gender norms: Discriminatory attitudes which deem women and girls “second class citizens” with specific roles as wives and mothers continues perpetuating child marriage.
What has this country committed to?
South Sudan has committed to eliminate child, early and forced marriage by 2030 in line with target 5.3 of the Sustainable Development Goals.
South Sudan co-sponsored the 2013 and 2014 UN General Assembly resolutions on child, early and forced marriage, and the 2013 Human Rights Council resolution on child, early and forced marriage. In 2014, South Sudan signed a joint statement at the Human Rights Council calling for a resolution on child marriage.
South Sudan acceded to the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 2015, which sets a minimum age of marriage of 18, and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 2015, which obligates states to ensure free and full consent to marriage.
South Sudan has not signed or ratified the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, including Article 21 regarding the prohibition of child marriage.
In 2013 South Sudan signed, but has not yet ratified, the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa, including Article 6 which sets the minimum age for marriage as 18.
South Sudan is one of 20 countries which has committed to ending child marriage by the end of 2020 under the Ministerial Commitment on comprehensive sexuality education and sexual and reproductive health services for adolescents and young people in Eastern and Southern Africa.
During its 2016 Universal Periodic Review, South Sudan supported recommendations to strengthen efforts to eradicate child marriage. The government highlighted that it is particularly difficult to combat child marriage and prevent girls from dropping out of school in states such as the Upper Nile, where most schools had been destroyed and were yet to be rebuilt.
What is the government doing to address this at the national level?
The Ministry of Gender, Child and Social Welfare led the development of a Strategic National Action Plan (SNAP) 2017-2030. The development of the action plan was spearheaded by a National Task Force to End Child Marriage, and the National Gender-Based Violence Sub-Cluster and the Child Protection Sub-Cluster, with technical and financial support from UNICEF and UNFPA. The development process also involved the Ministry of Health, Ministry of General Education and Instruction, and the Ministry of Justice, and many non-governmental stakeholders.
However there is currently a lack of government leadership to implement the action plan.
Special protection units have also been established at a number of police stations to enable women and girls to report cases of gender-based violence.
What is the minimum legal framework around marriage?
The minimum legal framework around marriage is not clear in South Sudan. The Transitional Constitution, which came into force at its independence in 2011, guarantees women the right to consent to marriage, and penal code provisions criminalise “kidnapping or abducting a woman to compel her to get married”. The 2008 Child Act includes provisions designed to protect children under the age of 18 from being forced into marriage.
African Commission on Human and People’s Rights, African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, [website], 2018, (accessed February 2018)
African Commission on Human and People’s Rights, Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa, [website], 2018, (accessed February 2018)
CHR Michelson Institute, Ending child marriages – new laws bring progress but hurdles remain, [website], 2016, (accessed June 2019)
Huffington Post, Facing famine, girls and women bear the heaviest burden, [website], 2017, (accessed May 2018)
Human Rights Watch, Child marriage: South Sudan, [website], 2013, (accessed May 2018)
Human Rights Watch, “This Old Man Can Feed Us, You Will Marry Him”, Child and Forced Marriage in South Sudan, 2013, (accessed May 2018)
Ministerial Commitment on comprehensive sexuality education and sexual and reproductive health services for adolescents and young people in Eastern and Southern African, (ESA), [website], 2014, (accessed February 2018)
Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark, Joint statement on child, early and forced marriage, HRC 27, Agenda Item 3, [website], 2014, (accessed April 2018)
Ministry of Health and National Bureau of Statistics, South Sudan Household Survey 2010, 2010, (accessed May 2018)
Plan International, Early marriage rates rise due to food crisis, [website], 2017, (accessed June 2018)
The Guardian, South Sudan’s battle for cattle is forcing schoolgirls to become teenage brides, [website], 2017, (accessed May 2018)
UN General Assembly, Report of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review, South Sudan, 2016, p.8, p.15, (accessed May 2018)
United Nations, Sustainable Development Knowledge Platform, [website], 2017, (accessed February 2018)
United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, South Sudan, Republic of, [website], 2018, (accessed May 2018)