Daughters are sold for cows and goats in South Sudan and Kenya as war and climate change plague East Africa

In Kenya and South Sudan, child marriage is on the rise, often with devastating consequences

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 28 June, 2018, 12:39am
UPDATED : Thursday, 28 June, 2018, 5:27am

Child marriage is increasing in parts of war-torn South Sudan and drought-hit Kenya as parents swap their daughters for cows and goats to survive, campaigners said on Wednesday.

Africa accounts for nine out of the 10 countries with the highest rates of underage unions globally, advocacy group Girls Not Brides said, with girls marrying due to tradition, family ties, poverty and the stigma of pregnancy out of wedlock.

But long-running wars and climate change are now leading factors too, activists said, highlighting a rise in marriage among girls under the age of 18 in South Sudan to 52 per cent from 40 per cent in 2010, according to United Nations data.

“The conflicts just worsened the situation,” said Dorcas Acen, a gender protection expert at the charity Care International in South Sudan.

“Majority of the parents wish to give up their girls and marry them off because of the economic hardship,” she said. “They are looking at how to reduce the number of mouths they need to feed.”

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Despite a global decline in child marriages, there are still some 12 million underage girls married every year, often with devastating consequences for their health and education.

South Sudan has been gripped by civil war since 2013, pitting forces loyal to President Salva Kiir against rebels linked to former Vice-President Riek Machar, and millions are going hungry amid rampant inflation and declining oil output.

As the conflict drags on and hard currency loses its lustre, parents can now receive up to 300 cows as a dowry when their young girl weds, up from about 30 cows during peacetime, Acen said.

“When there is a girl within the family ready to get married, people will come and present the number of cows,” she said while attending a global conference on child marriage in the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur.

“Basically it’s just bidding – whoever bids with the highest number of cows will take the girl,” she said.

Across the border in Kenya, many semi-nomadic Maasai and Samburu herders exchanged their daughters for livestock during a severe drought last year that killed large numbers of animals, said Millicent Ondigo of Amref Health Africa.

“Since the number of goats has decreased, parents rather sell their daughter for four [or] five goats for marriage,” said Ondigo, a project officer for the Nairobi-based health charity.

Families often marry girls off at earlier ages during drought since this earns them dowry and increases the girls’ chances of being fed by wealthier husbands, experts say.

Ondigo is working to convince parents that sending girls to school would bring them longer-term economic benefits.

“[We told parents] when she is done with schooling, she will get a job and she will be able to buy you more than those four goats,” Ondigo said.