Cover Story

Rescuing girls from forced marriages

By Ochan Joram David

The rise in cases of gender based violence and forced marriages in South Sudan can largely be attributed to strong traditional beliefs and a high illiteracy rate. The rising number of child/forced marriages is amplified by conflict, displacement and poverty. In South Sudan, girls are born to be married and generate wealth for a family through paying of bride price. Although it is common across the country, these practices mostly exist in rural areas and within pastoral communities.

In ancient South Sudan, tradition and culture act as administrative principles upon which people are governed. These practices have however established an unproductive precedent that continues to erode human development in the country.

In Kapoeta County, approximately only ten percent of male children go to school while many women admit that decision making in the family is exclusively the prerogative of the husband. “We have lost many girls to suicide related death in attempts of forcing them into early marriages” said one mother. Josephine Nakidor is 14-year-old survivor of early forced marriage. She lost her father and initially lives in Nangatuny with her mother and uncles.  Josephine narrated her ordeal, “As darkness fell one evening, my uncles sat me down to introduce me to my husband. I broke down in tears pleading that I should be given more time to mature. As I maintained my standpoint, I was beaten mercilessly together with my mother who was accused of influencing my

Having a very limited idea of her destiny, Nakidor found her way to the bush and ran through a dark forest for three days before reaching Narus.  She reported to St. Bakitha Girl’s Boarding School where many survivors of forced marriages are admitted for counselling, learning and housing.

Life in the school is good, teacher told me that education will support me to marry a husband of my choice, I want to become a leader”, Josephine said.

Elizabeth Nakai is 15-year-old and in primary grade two. She is too a survivor from Lochua Payam. “I escaped from my parents in 2017 as they planned to give me out to an old man. I heard rumours circulating that my parents had a plot to give me out. My mother was threatened to be killed if she disclosed this plot,” Elizabeth explained.

“I spoke to my elder sister who facilitated my escape to the forest before getting a small car on the road which then brought me to Narus,” she further said.

Upon reaching St. Bakhita School, Elizabeth was warmly welcomed by Sister Jane and a few other pupils. Knowing the implications of storming a religious school premises, the parents decided to use a Government official to persuade Sister Jane to release their daughter. Another attempt was made through an arrest warrant issued to allow the 15-year-old to go and answer charges against her in Lochua where the parents lived. All these attempts were unsuccessful as Sister Jane stood firmly to defend the girls.

Having fear of being kidnaped by her own parents, Elizabeth unlike other students did not spend her holidays in South Sudan. During vacation she was escorted by group of sisters to Lodwar in Kenya for safety.

Islamic Relief South Sudan has been supporting St. Bakhita primary school through integrated WASH services including construction of emergency latrines, rehabilitation of boreholes, assorted vegetable seeds, among others.

Celebrating Inspiring life of Sister Jane Maseko of St. Bakhita Girls Boarding School

Influenced by divine purposes Sister Jane Masiko is a missionary sister of St. Mary mother of the church based in Northern Uganda.

Before being deployed to the war torn country in 2013, Sr. Jane served in several dioceses in Northern Uganda. When news of her transfer to Kapoeta became real, she thought this was a punishment from her superiors. They had a discussion for several hours, although she was not quite convinced by her superiors. However, her strong religious beliefs inspired her to accept a daunting mission to South Sudan and to take charge of St. Bakhita Girls Boarding Primary and Secondary School in Narus.

The first weeks of Sister Jane’s stay in Kapoeta were adventurous, as she tried to understand the unique South Sudanese culture and behaviours.

Sister Jane became the fourth patron of St. Bakhita School since the establishment.  In 1994 amidst fierce fighting in Kapoeta between the SPLM/A and the Sudanese government forces, retired Bishop Parade Taban started with girls’ education, because most of the boys were recruited as child soldiers. Since then, the school has educated many girls, some of them were empowered to pursue higher education, including current national Minister for Environment, Josephine Napwon Cosmos.

Setup by the dioceses of Torit, the school encourages admission of children regardless of their socio-economic status or political affiliation. “The people of Kapoeta have no interest in girl child education, hence forced marriages and soaring illiteracy are common characteristics that defines the Toposa people of South Sudan,” she reveals.

So far more than 105 survivors of forced marriage are still undergoing primary schooling with 40 survivors of forced marriage registered in 2019. Many of these girls come with bruises and scars all over their bodies, a sign of torture to accept marriage.

Sr. Jane detailed several threats from parents in Kapoeta, with the most recent one when a parent stormed the school in protest of her child being kept there. The parent harshly asked “Sr. did you see girl child giving birth one day? Kindly produce my daughter or you will get killed.” Dressed in her white religious attire Sr. Jane admitted that she was ready to die to save 14-year-old girl from being sent into a forced marriage.

Threats, intimidation, harassment and often chasing after girls who have been kidnapped when children are out of school to buy scholastic materials are her daily encounters.

Currently, in St. Bakhita School 750 girls are undergoing primary learning and more hundreds are at the secondary stage. They depend on contributions from well-wishers and humanitarian and relief organizations.

Sr. Jane expressed her gratitude to Islamic Relief for continuous support and stated that for many girls in Kapoeta region, St. Bakhita School is not only place for education, but safe space and shelter to escape desperate destiny of child brides, and without Islamic Relief south Sudan and help of few other organizations such as UNICEF and WFP, keeping girls safe, empowering and educating them will not be possible.

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