South Sudanese girls given away as blood compensation

Dina Disan Olweny, the executive director of local non-governmental organization, the Coalition of State Women and Youth Organisation is among activists who are oushing for the end of harmful traditions. Photo Joyce Chimbi
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So extreme are the gender inequalities in South Sudan that a young girl is three times more likely to die in pregnancy or child birth than to reach the eighth grade — the last grade before high school.

According to Plan International, a vast majority of girls in the world’s youngest nation will have survived at least one form of gender based violence (GBV) which is manifested in various ways before marriage.

In Eastern Equatoria State, for instance, one of the country’s ten states, human rights activists are up in arms over a notorious tradition that is practiced by at least five of its 12 tribes.

Dina Disan Olweny, Executive Director Coalition of State Women and Youth Organisation, a local non-governmental organization says: “When a person commits murder, the bereaved family expects to be given ‘blood money’ as compensation.”

Where there is no money, a young girl is given to the bereaved family to ensure that peace is maintained between the two families and community at large.

The girl’s life is negotiated without her knowledge and consent, subjecting her to violence, abuse and exploitation.

According to Olweny, while there are no statistics to show the prevalence of this tradition, due to regular conflict over cattle and pasture, revenge killings and other inter village conflicts, many girls are being given away as blood money when a life is lost in the clashes.

Though 20 to 30 goats are what most tribes demand in the form of compensation when someone has been killed, Olweny explains: “Most families cannot afford or are unwilling to pay that much so they prefer to give away one of their daughters as compensation.”

Girl child compensation has, however, not escaped the eye of the government which set an estimated $500 fine as compensation for life taken but the communities still prefer to be given a girl arguing that the money is too little.

Young girls favoured

Within the communities, preference is given for younger girls, at times as young as five years old, and the notion behind this is that they will quickly forget their birth family and start afresh. No contact is expected between the girl and her family once this exchange has taken place.

The girl child is also favoured by the bereaved family because she can either be married off to one of their own without having to pay bride price or she can be married off when she turns 12 years and attract a herd of goats. This form of compensation, though a violation in itself, further opens the door for multiple abuses.

“A girl given away as blood money has no rights. She is subjected to child labour, sexual, physical and emotional abuse,” Olweny explains. “To escape the suffering that they go through most of them now prefer to commit suicide.”

Communities in the Eastern Equatoria State say customary laws which perpetuate these forms of abuse are seen to play a vital role in conflict resolution because they are considered cheap, accessible and the decisions are made based on the customs they are familiar with. They also argue that customary laws and decisions are more amicable and less time consuming.

But blood compensation is just one of a multitude of abuses that the girl child in South Sudan faces.

In Western Bahr El Ghazal, the notorious tradition of widow compensation has seen many young girls denied an opportunity to go to school as they are forced into early marriages.

Linda Ferdinand Hussein, the Executive Director of Women Organisation for Training and Promotion, a local non-governmental organization, says: “When a man’s wife dies for whatever reasons, the man can demand to be given back the bride price that he had paid.”

Bride price, she says, varies from one family to the next “but most families are unwilling to pay back the bride price so they give the man one of the deceased wife’s younger sisters as compensation.”

Return bride price

Hussein says that it does not matter how many years the two were married because all widowers “demand to be given back the bride price they had paid.”

If the family of the deceased woman has only young daughters, the man choses one of the girl who is then betrothed to him.

“When she finally turns 12 years, she becomes the man’s wife,” explains Hussein.

Four years after South Sudan won its independence to become the world’s youngest nation, child protection specialists like Hussein and Olweny are raising the alarm.

“Violence against young girls continues to be perpetrated in various ways in both peace times and during conflict,” notes Hussein.

A report released by the United Nations mission in the Republic of South Sudan (UNMISS) revealed that the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and associated armed groups recently carried out a campaign of violence against the population of South Sudan.

The report further revealed that this recent spate of violence marked by “new brutality and intensity” included raping and burning girls alive inside their homes.

In a report released by CARE, a leading humanitarian organization in May 2014 dubbed ‘The Girl Has No Rights’: GBV in South Suda’, it is clear that young girls face extreme disadvantages.

In peacetime time and during conflict, the South Sudan girl child faces extreme injustices which continue to serve as obstacles towards accessing an education and later exploiting opportunities that life presents for those who have gone through school.

According to Plan International, girls here are less likely to enter school and more likely to drop out.

As a result, 7.3 percent of girls are married before they reach 15 years, another 42.2 percent will have been married between the ages of 15 and 18 years.

Although 37 percent of girls enrol in primary school, only about seven percent complete the curriculum and only two percent proceed to secondary school.

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