Recent political and community leaders retreat in Greater Pibor tackles issue of child marriages

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At a three-day retreat in the Greater Pibor Administrative Area, politicians, women’s representatives, community leaders and youth groups unanimously agree to eschew underage marriage. Photo by Gideon Sackitey/UNMISS

Cultural norms and repeated cycles of conflict have impacted children negatively across South Sudan. Tens of thousands of young girls and boys were displaced or recruited into armed groups during the civil war and have had almost no education to speak of.

With a peace deal in place, relative stability has returned to this young nation. However, many young girls continue to suffer from underage or forced marriages, though these are forbidden as per the Child Act of 2008.

At a recent retreat for politicians and community leaders in the Greater Pibor Administrative Area (GPAA), the issue of child marriage and the need to protect and educate children, especially young girls, so that they can forge a brighter, economically sustainable future for themselves, was a major topic of discussion.

The forum organized by the Civil Affairs Division of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) unanimously decided that protecting the rights of every child was a key agenda item for the Greater Pibor area and the practice of underage marriages needs to stop.

This decision was cause for much jubilation among women’s representatives attending the retreat. “We are very excited that the rights of our children, especially our young girls, regarding marriage will now be respected and this age-old practice is going to stop,” said Joyce Aluel, a 57-year-old mother of three girls and a boy.

The retreat, attended by some 70 parliamentary representatives, youth, women, traditional leaders and academicians from the area also tried to find common grounds for reconciliation among different political parties so that they can come together under the umbrella of the Government of National Unity; address historic conflict triggers; cattle rustling; and child abductions.

“Many of these, including forced or underage marriages are part of customary norms that no longer hold sway in today’s world,” stated Jay Adingora Alual, GPAA Minister for Information, Culture, Youth and Sport.

“Our young girls have equal rights to be educated, earn a living and participate in decision-making and I promise today to be an advocate for them,” added the Minister.

All participants agreed that there must be accountability for those who are found guilty of forcing daughters to marry before maturity in exchange for money or cattle

“Girls aren’t commodities that can be traded. If South Sudan must progress and become at par with other developed nations girls must participate fully and equally in shaping their future,” added Ms. Aluel. “Anyone who uses their children for material gain must be held accountable.”

Another key feature discussed at the retreat was an urgent call for uniformed disarmament across Greater Pibor and a push for alternative mechanisms for voluntary surrender of arms. Other issues included the establishment of police posts at hotspots in conjunction with the national government; for politicians to continue their dialogues and consultations to reconcile themselves and a push to keep children in school.

Given these positive outcomes, Mike Dzakuma, Deputy Director, UNMISS Civil Affairs, urged all participants to keep up their enthusiasm to bring about socio-political transformation in Greater Pibor. “There may be setbacks but bringing about sustainable peace is a process. I hope you keep working towards your goals despite any roadblocks that you encounter.”

Source: United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS).

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