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South Sudanese Woman in Hiding to Avoid Forced Marriage

FILE - Cattle keepers walk past their herd at a camp outside the town of Rumbek, South Sudan, July 31, 2017. Cows are used for payments and dowries, which rights groups say helps perpetuate forced marriages, as families see daughters as a source of wealth.

Akuac Ring Ariik, a 20-year-old student, met Akok Koch for the first time in 2017. After what Ring describes as a brief conversation, Koch asked Ring to be his girlfriend. She refused.

She was shocked when, on Jan. 5, 2019, her father told her the family had made a decision: She would drop out of school and marry Koch, a man almost twice her age.

Despite her protests, Ring says her family moved forward with marriage plans.

So, she ran away and is now hiding at an undisclosed location in Kenya.

"It is so destructive because now I am a school dropout, I am on a hide, there's nothing like success anymore. My life is at risk, everything, my life, my education. My future is just at risk," Ring said.

Ring's case is not an isolated one. Each year, tens of thousands of young South Sudanese women — many of them younger than 18 — are forced into marriages by their families. Activists are trying to eliminate the practice through new laws and by demanding changes in South Sudan's traditional culture.

Lawyer Suzy Natana, who spoke to South Sudan In Focus last year, praised the government for passing legislation protecting girls and women. However, she said the culture in some communities is an obstacle to implementing the laws.

Natana said traditional local leaders should play a role in discouraging forced marriages.

"We need to advocate more ... so that our traditional leaders who command a lot of authority and respect have the ability to change people's perspective," she said.

VOA's South Sudan in Focus spoke to Ring several times, but her family could not be reached for comment despite repeated attempts.

Kidnapping accusations

Kenya's Ministry of the Interior has issued Ring a movement pass, a document that allows an asylum-seeker in Kenya to travel to a refugee camp. She could register at a camp in the western city of Kakuma. But she says she has no intention of going there, out of fear that her family could intercept her and force her back to her village.

"All they are doing is now searching for me, to take me to that man because they claim that whether I want or I don't, I must marry him," Ring said.

Ring's family has accused her real boyfriend, Kuc Mayur Kuc, a master's student at London's University of Kent, of kidnapping her. South Sudanese police have issued a warrant for his arrest.

Mayur denies abducting Ring. Speaking to VOA, he says he found out that he was wanted by South Sudanese police authorities through social media.

"She is an adult and she has the consent to travel from South Sudan to Kenya or Uganda. I actually did not force her to travel, she decided to travel on her own," Mayur said in a phone call from London.

Ring wrote a letter to South Sudanese police repudiating the accusation that she was kidnapped. In it, she says her brother-in-law, Makiir Gai Thiep, is leading the family's search for her.

"I write to clarify and dismiss the false spreading information in South Sudan and worldwide that I was kidnapped," reads the letter. "I ran away from [my family] because I was being forced to marry a man I don't want."

200 cows

Ring says Akok Koch offered her family more than 200 cows as part of a dowry. She says no dowry would be enough.

"I told them, it's all about faith. If they leave me to study, with education you can do something better than someone who is just having cows," she said. "I tried to tell them, but they didn't understand. Cows can't do anything with someone's life. And you cannot compare an animal, cows, with someone's life."

Ring says that if her situation is resolved, she would like to attend Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, and study medicine.

For the moment, that dream remains out of reach.