“I was 14 years old and I was forced to get married. The man was 46 years old. During pregnancy I had a lot of complications,” said a young woman, telling her story to reporter Mary Malang Chol.
“I would urge my fellow countrymen to respect the laws of the country,” she added.
Reporter Mary Malang Chol works at Mingkaman FM, a radio station supported by Internews that has been operating in South Sudan since early 2014. The station is a small pre-fab unit operating in the heart of a camp for internally displaced people (IDPs).
Forced marriage is illegal in South Sudan. There are laws protecting children and a law that clearly spells out the legal age of marriage. It is 18. Still, forced marriage takes place. According to the International Center for Research on Women, in South Sudan 52% of girls are married before the age of 18 and this adversely affects their participation in education.
After speaking to a young girl and her father, who had allowed the marriage of his daughter to proceed, Mary suggested a story to the Mingkaman FM team focused on the issue of forced marriage.
The father said he had no choice but to marry off his daughter because his family was very poor. “When there is nothing to eat at home and there is a girl who is ten years old, then do you wait? She could die before she reaches maturity. You are better off looking for the man who has cows to marry her and she can go away with the cows which will leave you to look after your other children.”
Mary understood that the issue was complex, and that it was important to get more firsthand stories. That evening she went out to gather more testimony. “I need to do this story. Women in my community are treated as second class citizens.”
The team gathered the next day for their daily meeting. Mary had her story. She had spoken to a midwife at the local United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) clinic who had been forced into marriage at the age of seventeen. She spoke of the medical dangers and complications associated with pregnancy in young girls.
“We have recorded more than 10 cases of underage pregnancy leading to complications in pregnancy. So my message is to the Members of Parliament who were elected by the community to represent them, to draft a law that will punish both the parents and the partners.”
The station decided to run the piece and devote that night’s discussion program to the forced marriage debate.
Jacob Deng, Mingkaman FM News and Programs Editor, was producing the one-hour discussion show. He gathered interviews from local people in the market and the views were mixed. Some people said, “Marry your daughter young and you will be guaranteed lots of children.” Others said, “Children need protecting,” while still others said, “families need cows and if they don’t have any money then they have to sell their daughters.”
That evening, the local regional leader, Paramount Chief Sultan Gideon Alier Aluong and Veronica Ajak Ayual, an International Rescue Committee (IRC) representative, sat down in the Mingkaman FM studio to discuss whether it is right to force young girls into marriage.
Jacob enriched the show with music including powerful lyrics that spoke to the dangers of forced marriage, and the rights of young women. He then ran a public health announcement and the debate show started.
The conversation was lively. Paramount Chief Alier declared that “In the past, there was nothing called human rights, but today they are at the corner of every family. When a girl is mature then that is the time for marriage.” He also said, “In some cultures, I may agree for my daughter to marry into a family I know will take care of her.”
Veronica Ajak Ayua of IRC was unequivocal, saying that forced marriage is a human trade and has nothing to do with poverty. “It is not poverty that makes people force their young ones into an early marriage. If you are poor sell some of your cows instead but not your daughter. This isn’t about culture.”
During the show people phoned in with their views. Opinion was mixed but the Paramount Chief was clear. “Real men don’t marry children.”
Mingkaman FM wanted to protect the identity of the young girl and so they didn’t reveal her name to the listeners. But it is clear her brave testimony had sparked a debate throughout the community.
Her story speaks for itself — “I was taken to the hospital for delivery; it took me a long time to give birth. Finally I was operated on to remove the baby because my hips had not developed and could not allow the baby to pass. Another challenge was that I did not know how to cook good food at home or take care of the home. I used to play with [other] children but now when I see them playing I am at home alone.”
Internews has been working in what is now South Sudan since 2006, building some of the first community radio stations in the country, and providing communities in remote, information-poor areas with vital access to news and information in local languages.
(This story was originally posted on Medium.)