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Early marriage rates rise due to food crisis

In war-torn and famine afflicted South Sudan, families can see selling their daughters into early marriage as a way to cope. One less mouth to feed plus receipt of a dowry may increase their chances of survival but the practice has a crippling effect on girls’ well-being.

Lezia was sold into child marriage as a result of the food crisis in South Sudan
17-year-old Lezia was sold into marriage for 100 cows. She became the second wife of a 32-year-old man.

With conflict and famine still raging across South Sudan, many girls are faced with a devastating dichotomy. Be sold into early marriage, or watch as their families continue to struggle with hunger and malnutrition as the food crisis deteriorates.

Donate to the East Africa Food Crisis AppealGirls face a huge risk of early and forced marriage as families struggle to survive. Many families see it as a coping mechanism as it gives them one less person to feed and they will receive dowry in the form of money or livestock which may improve their chances of survival.

These cruel circumstances rob girls of their basic right to choose when and to whom they get married - such as in the case of 17-year-old Lezia from Kapoeta East County. Three months ago, she was prized away from her family to be married in exchange for 100 cows.

Sold for 100 cows

Local men had been coming to her family’s compound offering livestock in exchange for Lezia since she was 13. Her father displayed a rag on top of the hut where they lived to indicate there were girls inside who were for sale.

Because I came at such a high price, more is expected from me.

It wasn’t until four years later, however, when the family began to go hungry as a result of the ongoing food crisis, that a sale was finally agreed. Lezia became the second wife of a 32-year-old man.

Some of the cattle that were paid as dowry for Lezia were sold to buy food for the family. However, she didn’t get access any of this food as straight after her wedding she was whisked away to assume her wifely responsibilities.

“My life has not been the same since I got married,” says Lezia. “I cannot go out with my friends for visits or social gatherings since I have to do housework from morning til sunset. Because I came at such a high price, more is expected from me.”

Scars inflicted to indicate 'ownership'

One of the most shocking parts of Lezia’s marriage are the cuts that were inflicted on her stomach soon after marrying. Elderly women in her community used knives to impose the cuts - intended to symbolise that she is now her husband’s ‘property’.

With the large scars on her skin, she is now regarded as less attractive by other men. Some of her friends who are not yet married have cuts on their arms to indicate they are reserved by their future husbands.

Marriage can seem like the only option

In nearby Lakes State, before Plan International support arrived, 15-year-old Locuo also believed that her only option against the growing crisis was to find a husband to take care of her and her younger siblings.

Locuo considered child marriage to support her siblings through famine.
Locuo considered early marriage in order to support her siblings through the food crisis.

“We ran out of food last year because we weren’t able to grow enough,” she says. “We had to beg from our uncles.

“I felt that all I could do was get married and have a family, that way I’d have someone to help me take care of my brothers and sisters.”

Locuo has missed out on school because the conflict has forced her family to move home several times. She also vividly recalls how her father was killed in an attack three years ago, leaving the children to fend for themselves:

“It happened when my father and some other men tried to defend our community against attackers who came to raid our animals,” she says. “After several hours of fighting, we found him lying in a pool of blood, dead.”

Food support gives girls hope for the future

Plan International’s Food Security and Livelihoods programme has given Locuo the hope that one day her life will get better. The seeds and farming tools her family received, alongside 1,700 other individuals in their village, mean that she can soon look forward to eating more regularly and healthily.

I no longer think getting married will solve my problems.

Life is now less of a burden and getting married no longer seems the only way she can improve her situation:

“I am hopeful that this year, since we have been given seeds and hoes, we will cultivate soon and at least have something to eat,” she says.

“I no longer think getting married will solve my problems. I have seen many women earning by selling the crops grown from seeds received from Plan International, so I will try farming with my brothers instead.”

Building resilience in vulnerable communities

As well as seeds and farming tools, Locuo and her community will also benefit from agricultural training provided by Plan International in partnership with local government officials from the department of agriculture. This is designed to increase the resilience of the most vulnerable communities to current and future shocks such as conflict, drought, floods, disease and inflation.

Plan International’s Country Director for South Sudan, Daniel Muchena, has said: "The effects of years of conflict and displacement on girls are immeasurable. Girls have little chance of recovering emotionally, physically or intellectually from the impact of having their lives turned upside down and pulled out of school - let alone the consequences of early marriage and teen pregnancy.”

By empowering girls like Luoco economically – providing them with alternative ways to raise income and feed their families – Plan International strives to ensure that marriage is a choice for these girls, not an inevitability.

Show your support

Please help give children in South Sudan hope for the future by donating to the East Africa Food Crisis Appeal.