YAOUNDÈ, Cameroon – Catholic clerics in South Sudan are raising alarms over forced child marriages, complaining that the traditional practice scuttles girls’ dreams of ever walking the corridors of higher learning and meeting their lifetime dreams.

The world’s youngest nation, which gained independence from Sudan in 2011, is notorious for early marriages. The Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa (SIHA) reporting that “more than 10 girls are forced into marriage every week in South Sudan and over 50 percent of all girls in the country are married before the age of 18.”

The report says further that 8 percent of child brides in South Sudan become pregnant before reaching adulthood, and that refusal to get forcibly married could result in abuse, exclusion from society, and even imprisonment.

The UN led Humanitarian Response Plan for South Sudan indicates that 4 million girls were affected by early or forced marriage in 2022, an increase from 2.7 million in 2021.

The sobering figures have drawn a strong Catholic reaction.

Speaking during a June 12 pastoral visit to Our Lady of Fatima Parish in Wau Diocese, Bishop Mathew Remijio Adam blasted fathers for privileging dowries of cows and other gifts over the education and welfare of their children.

Human Rights Watch cites the case of an uncle forcing his 14-year-old niece, Akech, into marrying a man four times her age. “Girls are born so that people can eat. All I want is to get my dowry,” the uncle told his niece when she tried to resist. The older man paid 75 cows as dowry for the teenager, which signified that the marriage had been sealed.

“She tried to resist, but her male cousins beat her severely, accused her of dishonoring her family, and forced her to go to the man’s house,” HRW reports. Akech would eventually be imprisoned for trying to escape, and then forced to return to her husband. She had no other choice but to stay, her dreams of becoming a teacher shattered.

Such abuses fly in the face of the country’s constitution that calls for the respect of human rights and the various international treaties and conventions South Sudan has signed. In 2015, South Sudan acceded to the Convention on the Rights of the Child which sets a minimum age for marriage at 18. It is also a signatory to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 2015, which obligates states to ensure free and full consent to marriage.

But in a culturally entrenched society, and in an atmosphere of perverse hunger, forced marriages are widely practiced in South Sudan.

“As Church leaders, we are not happy with fathers because our girls are disappearing from school every year because of forced marriage or pregnancy,” said Bishop Mathew Remijio Adam.

“Look at the efforts that their mothers are doing; they cultivate, and build a house in order to support their daughters in studies, and you are destroying them,” Remijio told the country’s fathers.

The cleric underscored the need for parents to foster the education of their children, both girls and boys, “for a better and equal society because marrying them at an early age or before finishing their studies destroys their future.”

In a similar vein, the Bishop of the Torit diocese, Emmanuel Barnadino Lowi Napeta, insisted that the old habit can’t continue.

“During my pastoral visits, I heard some elders are forcing their girls to get married while still young because of cows,” he said.

“I want our elders to denounce these issues of forced and early marriages because it stops the girls from getting the education they want…This old mentality needs to be challenged to allow the girls to get quality education,” he said.

Noting that things “have changed,” he told the people of southeastern South Sudan that “if you want to be somebody in the society, you study. Our parents did not have the chance we have now.”

Napeta said that educating boys and girls means building life-changing potential in one of the world’s poorest countries.

“If you have one girl and a boy educated, they can change the society. The water we are carrying will come to you through the pipe, even roads will be okay and education speaks the future,” he said.

He pointed to mobile phones that even parents use to make videos and take photos, telling them it is through education that such devices have been made.

“Education makes the impossible possible … Without education I would have not seen the pope. I just want to encourage you who have not joined school to do so, and those in school not to get discouraged.”