Forced marriage and violence, girls feel the pinch in South Sudan

By Joseph Scott, Communications and Policy Coordinator

“I felt like it was better to die than marry someone I didn’t know,” says 17 year old Mary (not real name)* from Torit in South Sudan. This is the pain Mary feels six months after she was nearly forced by her family to marry a stranger.

Mary came to know of the plan one Saturday afternoon when she was returning from visiting her relatives in town. Inside the house, seated on one of the family’s home-made wooden chairs was an elderly man she had never seen before. After a while, Mary’s brother and mother joined her and told her that they had ‘important business to discuss’.

Stella Mindraa, a Gender Based Violence Response Officer for CARE in Torit with 17 year old Mary* at a Safe Shelter in Torit. Mary ran away from home after she was beaten by her brother after refusing a forced marriage.
© Joseph Scott/CARE

“I wasn’t so sure what was happening,” says Mary. “I started to think that I had done something dreadful.”

The old man told the stunned teenager that he was there to finalize marriage arrangements between her and his nephew. They had already been agreed, he said, with her mother and brother.

The news hit Mary hard and she felt dizzy; falling to the ground she started crying.

“My brother threatened me that if I continued crying he would beat me,” she recalls. “But I was in so much shock that I couldn’t stop. I managed to speak and told the old man that I didn’t want anything to do with his nephew. But before I finished, my brother slapped me across the face and ordered me to shut up.”

Ten cows for dowry

After the old man had left, Mary’s brother told her that they had already agreed 10 cows for her dowry. He wanted to use the cows to get a wife of his own, so she had to agree to the marriage. 

Angrily she told them she wasn’t interested in marrying someone she didn’t know. But this only served to upset her brother more. “He suddenly stood up and started kicking me in the ribs,” she says. “I tried to push him away but he was too strong. The beating continued and I told myself that if I don’t escape, I will get killed.”

Mary summoned the little energy she had, and ran out in the night. She remembered that there was a CARE social worker in the village who might be able help her.

After Mary narrated her story, the CARE social worker assured her that she would be safe. She made some calls and contacted her colleagues in the State Ministry of Gender, Child and Social Welfare to explain the young girl’s situation. It was then decided that she needed to be taken to a place safe for the night where her abusive brother couldn’t find her.

A safe haven

With support from CARE, Mary was taken to a Safe Shelter, which CARE and its partners operate in a discreet location only known to the partner involved in GBV response in Torit, Eastern Equatoria as part of the referral pathway. Due to lack of safe place for survivors of GBV in South Sudan, the Ministry of Gender, Child and Social Welfare has expressed the need for the establishment of GBV shelters that address safety and security of GBV survivors in South Sudan.

“We don’t disclose the location of the safe shelter to the public,” says Stella Mindraa, a Gender Based Violence Response Officer for CARE in Torit. “We want survivors to feel safe and also make sure that they are not pursued by their attackers when we accommodate them in the facility.”

At the Safe Shelter, a CARE counsellor took Mary through a counselling session and gave her fresh clothing, food and other basic hygiene items.

“Our first priority is to make the survivor feel safe,” says Stella. “We then provide them with a temporary shelter; place to sleep. Depending on the gravity of the abuse, we may keep them for a week or more whilst we support the survivors to access available services depending on their wishes and search for a longer term solution.”

In South Sudan, violence against women and girls is endemic. A recent study by CARE shows that 7 in every 10 women and girls experience physical and/or sexual violence in their life time. The custom of a man supplying a bride price in exchange for a girl to marry has worsened the problem as it gives men the feeling that they ‘own’ their wives. And this defines how women and girls are treated all their lives.

“The violence against women and girls is shocking,” says Stella. “This month alone, we have handled four cases of physical violence toward women and girls. Our local culture turns a blind eye to such abuse and in some instances, they are perceived as normal. This is what, as CARE, we are fighting to end.”

Resolving the issue

The next day, Mary was taken to the hospital for treatment of her wounds while Stella and her colleagues contacted Mary’s uncle. He had paid for her schooling and she felt could act as a good ally in this situation with her family. A meeting was arranged with the family that afternoon.

With the help of her uncles, and after telling her family that she already had a boyfriend she wanted to marry and making it clear she wasn’t interested in an arranged marriage, they finally agreed to withdraw their plans.

Mary is just one of the many women who have been supported by CARE in Torit through the USAID/OFDA funded Emergency Health, Nutrition and Protection project. The project aims to provide timely lifesaving and integrated multisector assistance to reduce conflict-induced suffering among displaced people and host community women, girls, children under five and other vulnerable people in South Sudan.

“I am happy that it ended well,” says Mary. “My family now respects my decision on whom I want to marry. Now, I am living happily as before, thanks to the support from CARE.”

Mary* is not her real name. We changed to protect the identity of the survivor.

Read more about CARE's work in South Sudan, here.