In impoverished South Sudan, a child bride can be bought for a herd of cows

PUBLISHED : Monday, 01 August, 2016, 12:02pm
UPDATED : Monday, 01 August, 2016, 9:46pm

When the girl was 16, her uncle told her he was taking her to the family village.

Excited about the trip, she packed the few things she had. She thought the plan was to meet relatives and see the birthplace of her father, who died when she was 10.

She didn’t understand yet that in South Sudan, being “taken to village” has another meaning: She would be married off, against her will, to an elderly man she had never met. She would be the newest of his six wives.

“My uncle needed cows,” she said.

In many communities in South Sudan, one of the world’s poorest nations, girls grow up with a single purpose: to be sold into marriage for cows to expand a family’s herd — the closest thing most people have to a bank account — and to buy wives for her brothers.

Because it makes financial sense to marry off a daughter quickly, the brides are often children.

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Independence for South Sudan in 2011 brought widespread hopes for prosperity, an end to years of civil war and rudimentary rights for the new country’s 11.3 million people. But little of that has materialised.

Across much of the troubled country, young girls remain as much a commodity for marriage as they ever were.

Roughly 17 per cent of girls marry before they are 15, and nearly a quarter marry between 15 and 17, according to a 2010 government survey. The vast majority of those marriages are thought to be families trading their daughters for cows.

The bride price is typically 20 to 40 cows, each worth up to US$500. A girl who is seen as beautiful, fertile and of high social rank can bring as many as 200 cows.

Some girls go meekly, melting away to a distant village to haul water and firewood, sweep, clean, wash, cook, give birth, work a lifetime.

Not Agnes Keji.

When her father informed her that she would be married to a man who was about 70, “I refused,” she said. She had fallen in love with another man when she was 13 — but the romance was unthinkable because he had no cows.

“If you want to kill me, kill me now because I don’t want to go to a man I don’t know,” she said she told her father.

So he beat her. Her brother did worse: He needed the cows she would bring so he could marry the girl he wanted. So he took his machete, Keji said, and found her in the village square.

“He slashed me, and he cut my throat,” she said. “The cut was deep, and I was taken to hospital.”

Neither her brother nor father could be reached for an interview. The left side of her neck has a scar about an inch long.

Keji tried running away to the capital of Juba, 85km and a three-hour drive on cratered dirt roads from her town of Terekeka on the Nile River. But her brother caught her and brought her back, she said.

Now 19, she was expecting to soon be married to the older man: “I don’t have power. I’m finished. There’s nowhere to go. There’s nothing I can do.”