A new report by British charity Oxfam warns that another generation of girls in South Sudan will miss out on education, face high health risks during childbirth, and be more likely to face sexual and domestic violence unless the country takes more steps to eliminate forced marriages.
The report, Born to Be Married, states that South Sudan is one of the most difficult places in the world for girls to receive an education. Most girls drop out of school due in part to forced marriage at young ages.
Ranjan Poudyal, Oxfam's country director for South Sudan, said the group found that more than 70 percent of girls in Nyal are married before the age of 18.
"Men, boys and girls spoke of how child marriage can have devastating consequences for young girls. We know that 76 percent of South Sudanese girls are out of school. And child marriage contributes a lot to the fact that they are not in school," Poudyal told VOA's "South Sudan in Focus."
Oxfam says it carried out its research in the town of Nyal, in former Unity state, over a four-year period.
Poudyal said hunger and poverty, caused in part by the country's civil war, have driven families to desperation. Many parents will marry off their young daughters for a dowry.
Juba parent Esther Atim said the economic crisis caused by the war has put a terrible strain on families, especially children.
"The girl child doesn't want to see her mum suffering. She finds a way she thinks is OK [to help her mother]. For example, she goes to town and gets money through commercial sex and then she gives the money to the mum to buy food. In the process, she gets pregnant and her future is ruined. Some parents also agree with somebody to marry their daughters so that they have money to survive," Atim told VOA.
Atim urged government officials to strengthen existing laws aimed at ending child and forced marriages and to invest in girls' education. The report noted that in 2012, the government finalized a "gender policy" that called for new laws to address sexual and gender-based violence, "and establishing 'safe centers' for psychosocial support." The report, however, said such frameworks remain largely unimplemented.
Twenty-four-year-old Helen Poni, who is from the town of Rubkona, said she is a survivor of early forced marriage and became pregnant when she was 16 years old.
"I did not know that I was pregnant. The man actually forced me to have sex with him. From that day I hate him forever. And I don't want even to see him. The time my parents realized that I am pregnant, my father actually said continue with your marriage. The time I gave birth, I tried to ask, 'Dad, I want to go back to school.' He said, 'No, you are already spoiled,'" Poni said.
Poni said she defied her parents' wishes because she wanted to continue her education. She struggled at first, but was able to complete her secondary education. Poni now works as a hairdresser in Juba, supporting herself and her 8-year-old.
In her spare time, Poni campaigns against child marriages in South Sudan.
"When I see a young girl pregnant, I feel that pain. I just remember the way I got pregnant. By then I used to advise girls in my area so that they will not do that same mistake that happened to me so that we shall end child marriages from our country and in Africa," Poni told VOA.
The report says child marriage increases a girl's risk of death or complications during pregnancy and childbirth. It also says child marriage puts girls at greater risk of sexual, physical and emotional violence.
Of the married women and girls interviewed by UNICEF in Nyal, 84 percent said they had experienced or witnessed sexual violence between a husband and wife.
Elysa Buchanan, the report's author and Oxfam policy adviser in South Sudan, said researchers asked the Nyal community how they thought child marriage could be eliminated.
"Most importantly for them was a kind of increased advocacy, and that really meant engaging local authorities and leaders and people with the power to respond to it. And not only engaging women and girls on this issue, but also men and boys and stepping that up," Buchanan told "South Sudan in Focus."
The report calls on international donors and humanitarian agencies to direct more funding to community-led initiatives that prevent gender-based violence and end child marriage through education and awareness campaigns which challenge cultural norms.