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Mother-of-three, Mary-Joseph, was married aged 15. This isn’t unusual in her country, South Sudan. There, nearly half of all girls aged 15-19 are married, according to government statistics.
Child marriage can disrupt or end a girl’s education and, alarmingly, South Sudanese girls are more likely to die in childbirth than complete primary school. Child marriage can also increase a girl’s risk of violence and abuse from her husband or his family, and can threaten her health in terms of her risk to violence and complications due to early pregnancy.
Today women and girls also face a new challenge in the world’s newest nation. Nearly 900,000 people - mostly women and children - have fled their homes since fighting started last year between forces loyal to President Salva Kiir and anti-government army units.
Many families have fled to camps in search of a safe haven or are living unaided in rural areas, which can pose increased risks of violence to girls and women. In addition to everyday survival, adolescent girls and young women are being forced to put their personal safety at risk; running the gauntlet of violence, abuse and gang-rape by armed forces as they search for food, water and shelter to survive.
Mary-Joseph (pictured) fled her home after witnessing her neighbour’s two young sons being shot and killed by troops. The young mother took her children to a rural area, where they lived for months eating leaves and wild fruits to survive.
She has since moved on to a sprawling camp on the outskirts of Pibor’s airstrip, Jonglei. There, Mary-Joseph and her children have access to food and shelter, but she still does not feel safe. That’s because her friend, Elizabeth, was ambushed by troops and raped when she was collecting firewood.
In my role as gender advisor at Plan UK, I have seen first-hand the importance of supporting girls and young women in the world’s poorest communities to realise their human rights.
That’s why I’m delighted that the UK Government is now set to be legally committed to reporting on gender inequality through its development and humanitarian aid spends, when a new bill passed its final stage in the House of Lords this week.
The International Development Gender Equality Bill, which has been supported by NGOs like Plan UK, the Great Initiative and WaterAid, is set to become law in the next few days. It means the International Development Secretary must report to parliament on progress made on women’s and girls’ rights and gender equality, to ensure that aid is responsive to the differential needs of women and girls in addition to the needs of boys and men.
During the debate on the Bill, the government has underlined its commitment to including both a standalone goal on gender equality as well as integrating it through all other goals. In addition, it has stated a commitment to include the eradication of child marriage in the new framework that will replace the Millennium Development Goals in 2015.
Plan’s global Because I Am A Girl Campaign is dedicated to empowering women and girls in developing countries by promoting their rights and more equal relations with boys and men in line with internationally agreed human rights frameworks such as the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). This law will further ensure that women and girls’ specific concerns continue to be central to the Department for International Development’s (DFIDs) work.
It’s an important step for women and girls across the world, like Mary-Joseph, who are affected by poverty, injustice, violence and discrimination, in all areas of their lives.