“By ending early marriages we can avert up to 30 percent of maternal deaths and also reduce the neonatal mortality rate,” she said in a statement published by the World Health Organization.
Complications of pregnancy and childbirth are leading causes of death in young women aged 15 to 19 years in developing countries, according to Dr. Flavia Bustreo of the WHO.
Early marriages also will prevent South Sudan from achieving the goal of having women hold 25 percent of government jobs, said Lorna James Elia of the local Voices for Change advocacy group.
She said women activists grouped under a project “Girls, Not Brides,” are trying to engage community leaders and traditional chiefs to end early and forced marriages.
Young brides also confront more violence, according to U.N. studies: Girls who marry before they are 18 are more likely to become victims of violence from their partner, with the risk increasing as the age gap between the couple gets larger.
Traditionally, poor families marry off young girls to reduce the family expenses on food, clothing and education. A big incentive can be the dowries older men will pay for a young bride, sometimes hundreds of cows.
Another South Sudan child bride, Ageer M., told Human Rights Watch, “The man I loved did not have cows and my uncles rejected him. My husband paid 120 cows. … I refused him but they beat me badly and took me by force to him. The man forced me to have sex with him so I had to stay there.”
In South Sudan, and some other countries, early marriage is seen as a way to protect girls from sexual violence and ensure that they do not bring dishonor on the family by getting pregnant out of wedlock.
Human Rights Watch called for South Sudan’s government to clearly set 18 as the minimum age for marriage. But the country’s minister for gender and child affairs, Agnes Kwaje Losuba, said the Child’s Act already does that.
“We need to make sure this is implemented,” she said.