A group of U.S. senators is asking pointed questions of Facebook about reports the company allowed the auction of a South Sudanese child bride on its site — reports that turned out to be untrue.
The bipartisan group of nine senators directed a letter to Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg on Thursday. The senators called the alleged auction of the teenage girl a human rights violation, asked Zuckerberg what steps Facebook is taking to "ensure that no persons are trafficked, auctioned or sold on any of your platforms."
"It is time that Facebook start taking real responsibility for abuses wrought on its platforms. It is not enough to say that you were unaware of the problems on your site," the senators said in a statement.
However, it now appears Facebook did not host any kind of auction for the 16-year-old girl.
The story began on October 25 when a message posted on Facebook announced that a family in South Sudan's Eastern Lakes state was accepting bids for the teenage girl's hand in marriage. The post showed a photo of the girl standing next to an unidentified man smiling broadly.
The post, which has since been deleted, said the leading bidder had offered 500 cows and three cars for the girl, and said other men were planning to join the bidding.
VOA's South Sudan in Focus program reported on the post and the alleged auction on November 6, after South Sudan's National Alliance for Women Lawyers condemned both the post and the practice of forced underage marriage for South Sudanese girls.
VOA has since learned the post was written by a Ugandan man not related to the girl or her family. The post brought attention to the girl's situation, but was not an effort by the family to solicit bidding.
Role of dowry
Rights group Plan International has reported that the girl was married off to the winning bidder on November 3.
The group's country director for South Sudan, George Otim, acknowledged in a statement that suitors offering dowries for potential brides is a common practice in South Sudanese culture.
But he added, "nothing can excuse the way this girl — who is still a child — has been treated as nothing more than an object, sold off to the bidder prepared to offer the most money and goods."
Otim asked the South Sudanese government to investigate reports that high-ranking government officials took part in the bidding and suspend them if necessary.
Speaking to VOA last month, South Sudanese lawyer Suzy Natana said parents should consider dowry as a token of appreciation rather than payment for their daughters.
"Dowry is not necessarily a bad thing because it leaves a simple token of appreciation that has invested in our culture, but it has to be regulated. There has to be some form of regulation and if it is just a token, then even if it is just one cow or two cows that is given out as a form of dowry, a token of appreciation, that's good enough but the moment we start attaching value to this token, then there comes a problem," Natana said.
Natana encouraged girls to report cases of forced and early marriages to the police and to women's organizations.
Facebook spokesperson Sarah Pollock told VOA that human trafficking is not permitted on the social media platform.
She said the October 25 post violated Facebook's policy. "Auctioning another individual falls within our definition of human trafficking and we removed this post as soon as we became aware of it," Pollock said.
However, she acknowledged that Facebook did not remove the post until November 9, which she says is when the company first learned about the post.
"We removed the post and permanently disabled the account belonging to the person who posted this to Facebook," Pollock told South Sudan in Focus.
She said Facebook is always working to improve its methods "to identify content that breaks our policies, including doubling our safety and security [team] to more than 30,000."
It remains to be seen whether that information will satisfy the senators, who asked Zuckerberg to respond to their questions by December 20.
Ayen Bior contributed to this report.