Breaking ‘bad habits’: The fate of girls in South Sudan

A colleague from CPJ asked if I would be interested in talking to his friend about a practice of the friend’s tribe in Eastern Equatoria, South Sudan. The custom involves the use of women as payment in traditional justice. Godfrey Victor Bulla, head of a non-profit called RIFE (Right to Information Freedom and Empowerment) explains:

“This is done when a member of the family, usually a male, kills a member of another family, a beautiful and healthy girl from the family which committed the crime is given to the other family as compensation and, if that girl dies there, they will come for another girl.”

I can only imagine what it means for a “beautiful and healthy girl” to be forcibly traded to a family as “compensation.” What that girl will suffer.

While I await further details from Bulla to write more about this form of so-called justice, I have come across something equally harrowing going on in South Sudan: This story, in the Sudan Tribune, recounts the murders of three girls, and the near-death of another, all within a few months of one another. All were beaten because of issues related to marriage.

It’s not like in the West—these girls weren’t killed because of domestic violence. They were killed over disputes in the arrangements of their forced marriages, such as marital gifts, what they or their families felt was their right as dictated by centuries of tradition.

One girl died because she chose a boy whose family did not have enough cattle to fulfill her family’s expectations of a dowry. Another girl barely survived in the same beating, in which both girls had been stripped naked and beaten until one of them expired.

One girl died when her cousin killed her because she asked for ivory jewelry—a symbol of marital status in Dinka culture—before she was forcibly married. The families had already negotiated an 80-cattle gift to the girl’s family. Ivory, it seems, was too much. The cousin “dragged her along the ground until her clothes were torn off and she had bruises all over her body.” He then beat her to death.

One girl died because she became impregnated by the wrong man. Her cousins took her to the bush and beat her, and her unborn child, to death.

I’m relying on the reporting of the Sudan Tribune, about which I know very little. But even if one of these stories has been correctly reported, then it is one girl dead too many.

The chairman of South Sudan’s Human Rights Commission, Laurent Gurbandi, has recently asked the country’s government to legally combat what he called “bad habits” that lead to the killing of young girls by relatives.

While I was unable to discover what Gurabandi meant exactly by “bad habits,” I appreciate his further request that the country outlaw marriage of girls 16 years and under. (Take a look at Girls Not Brides, Stop Honor Killings, and the NoVo Foundation for more on ending child marriage.)

“Bad habits” are hard to break. In this case, I would think, they are they are less “habits” than deeply ingrained abusive attitudes. And breaking such habits will take a lot of education, intervention, and legal action. But break them we must before three more girls are murdered, and another is beaten to near-death.

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