Hunger crisis fuels child marriages in South Sudan
How hunger, gender-based violence and age-old beliefs deprive girls of autonomy
“When it happened, I cried and blamed the day I was born”, Katina*, 16 years old, recalls. Her father is a soldier who left them when they were young. Her mother was always drunk and ignored her children’s welfare.
At 10, Katina became a mother to her siblings: two girls and two boys. She shares, “I began gathering firewood and selling them at the market to buy food. We were able to have one meal per day.”
Katina got used to, and felt safe, going to the bush. This was their only source of livelihood for six years until January 2022.
“I never noticed the man sneak behind me. He suddenly just grabbed me and raped me while I was trying to feed my sibling,” she says.
According to a UN report, an estimated 2.6 million people in South Sudan - over 80% of them women and children - are suffering from increasing incidents of gender-based violence, like Katina.
“As I cried and tears rolled down my face, I thought if we have food at home and care of our parents, I would not have experienced the abuse and brutality,” she adds.
Raising awareness against abuse
World Vision, with support from South Sudan Humanitarian Fund, had been training people in Katina's community to be part of referral pathway committees. The committees identify and refer gender-based violence cases to health facilities and centres for support.
The committees were also tasked with raising awareness against all forms of abuse in the community.
One of the committee members in Greater Tonj County reported Katina’s case to World Vision.
The daily visits made me stronger
World Vision’s social worker Pasquina Diu immediately followed up the next day and referred Katina to the hospital for medical services within the recommended 72-hour window, ensuring that she received a post exposure prophylaxis (PEP) kit for HIV prevention.
But survivors of rape require more than medical attention, and social workers like Pasquina also provide emotional support.
“The picture of the whole incident kept flashing in my head, and it made me feel I am going through the abuse all over again. The social worker’s daily visits and psychosocial support made me stronger,” Katina says.
“I see great change in Katina compared [to] when I saw her after the incident. I was also very much affected to see a young girl go through such terrible pain,” shares Pasquina.
However, two weeks after the incident, Katina faced another challenge. “Our father’s brother suddenly surfaced in our life to inform me that I should prepare to get married because I brought shame to the family, as if I asked the man to violate me,” she says.
Being the only girl to have gone to school, Katina had dreams. “Out of the little I earned, I was able to go to school because I knew it would be the only thing that can help us in the future."
Hunger...pushed me to the wall
Her uncle forced her to marry a 45-year-old man as his fourth wife. “I tried to resist, but I [was] beaten to submission. I thought resisting further was like punishing myself. So I gave in. The hunger being endured by my siblings also pushed me to the wall without a better choice,” Katina explains.
An age-old tradition in many of South Sudan’s communities gives, in the absence of parents, older male relatives the right to decide on a girl’s future - even without her consent.
Adding to this, UNOCHA’s report identifies “climate shocks, severe drought, massive flooding and conflicts” as contributing factors to the increase in gender-based violence cases, with an estimated 2.6 million people affected - 82% of these are women and girls.
World Vision Project Manager Joseph Deng says, “Women in Greater Tonj, just like in many part of South Sudan, experience hunger-related abuse. We need to support more efforts to stop gender-based violence, to stop this continuing threat on women and children in greater Tonj.”
Katina worries for her siblings. “I used the support I received from World Vision to provide for their food. I have nothing more to be able to help them.”
World Vision’s campaign in communities continue to educate people about child protection and gender-based violence through community-based protection committees. As hunger impacts millions in South Sudan, many of these vulnerable women and girls will be facing abuse and will need more support.
Note: *Name changed to protect her identity.
Empowered girls decide their future
Donate today: help young women like Katina avoid forced marriages.Donate to Childhood Rescue