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In June this year, leaders from the Executive branch of the Government and relevant line Ministries including State Governors, traditional and religious leaders, civil society organizations and the United Nations under the leadership of UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, made a collective commitment and pledge to eliminate child marriage at the launch of the costed Strategic National Action Plan (2017-2030) to End Child Marriage in South Sudan.

International conventions and agreements such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the International Conference on Population and Development, which call on member states to protect the girl child, have been in existence for decades. The forward looking 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development also addresses the issue of child marriage under Goal 5, that aims to  “Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls” in all circumstances.

Despite these international agreements and national frameworks, child marriage remains a prevalent practice in many developing countries including South Sudan, where 4 out of 10 girls are married before the age of 18.

As we observe the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, it is a timely reminder that child marriage is a gross violation of human rights that has life-long consequences for a young girl. Girls who are married young often drop out of school, which is a denial of their right to education. They often become pregnant while still adolescents, increasing the risk of complications during pregnancy and/or childbirth that could lead to death. They may also be exposed to sexually transmitted infections, including HIV, especially in polygamous marriages. Most importantly, child marriage denies girls the right to choose whom and when to marry – one of the most important decisions in life.

Treating young girls as commodities that will bring fortunes to families must stop and all parties who perpetuate this practice must be held accountable for their actions – the parents who marry off their minor children, the men who marry the children, and even authorities and law enforcers who knowingly allow this practice to take place and choose not to take action.

All stakeholders, including the national champions in the fight against child marriage appointed by His Excellency, President Salva Kiir Mayardit, who have pledged to support the implementation of the Strategic National Action Plan to End Child Marriage in South Sudan must come together to immediately bring forth the comprehensive change outlined in the plan. The action plan includes legal reform and enforcement; ensuring access to quality education, and sexual and reproductive health information and services; and promoting girls’ empowerment. Development partners are also enjoined to pool resources in whatever form to support the full implementation of the costed strategic plan.

Respect for the dignity of women and girls is paramount to achieving genuine peace and realizing national development for South Sudan. This can be achieved, starting with ending this harmful practice of child marriage.