Veronica was just three years old when her parents, who live in a desolate village in South Sudan, “booked” her marriage to secure a dowry of a few cattle to feed their starving family.
There was little they could do when the groom, in his 40s, returned just over a decade later to claim his by then 14-year-old bride.
That day Veronica remembers cowering behind her mother as she fought hard to keep her at home.
But the groom threatened to return with backup and arms and so, like an increasing number of minors in South Sudan, the little girl was married. Within a few months she had a baby, after hours of gruelling childbirth which saw her hospitalised.
“There is no rest, the baby is disabled, I am hungry and weak,” the emaciated 16-year-old says, her unresponsive child swaddled in a cloth carrier on her back.
“There is no day I have eaten properly in my whole life, and I’m finding it hard to breastfeed. My baby is unwell,” she adds.
Early enforced marriage has long been practised in South Sudan, the world’s youngest country, and so despite the legal marital age being 18, it suffers from one of the highest child marriage rates in the world.
According to United Nations figures, compiled before the country’s civil war erupted in 2013, just over half the female population are married before they turn 18.
The issue hit the headlines in November when a 17-year-old South Sudanese girl was auctioned off on Facebook, sparking fears other families would use social media to demand bigger dowries for their daughters.
The highest bidder, a wealthy businessman, reportedly gave the girl’s father more than 500 cows, three luxury cars and £7,500 as dowry.
While an auction of this size is extremely rare, it shed light on the issue: rights groups now believe that the percentage of child brides has soared as women and children have borne the brunt of a five-year civil war that has ravaged the country, sparking one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.
More than 7 million people, or two-thirds of the population, are in need of humanitarian aid. There are over 5 million going hungry. This is despite a peace deal signed in September between rebel factions and the recognised president, Salva Kiir Mayardi.
This week Oxfam warned that rising hunger and poverty has forced families like Veronica’s to promise their daughters in exchange for supplies and food.
In areas like Nyal, in the north, Oxfam said new data they have gathered showed that as much as 71 per cent of all girls were married underage, making it the second highest rate in the world after Niger.
“We get anecdotal reports that child marriage is actually increasing because of the crisis – one of the major factors related to that is poverty,” Elysia Buchanan, Oxfam’s policy adviser in South Sudan tells The Independent.
“Because we have this dowry system in the country where men pay a bride price to the bride’s family in order to marry her, people are increasingly talking about it as a coping mechanism for hunger,” she adds.
It was the reason that Veronica’s family booked her aged just three.
“My family needed food,” the teenager says, with an air of acceptance, sitting in the back of a car as we drive her four hours down a dirt track to the nearest clinic.
“The day my husband came, I was very scared. My mother didn’t want me to go but my father insisted. It got violent. The cattle had already been given,” she adds.
Violence and instability are contributing to the phenomenon. Internal displacement of more than 2 million people has seen parents marry off their young daughters to help the family integrate with host communities.
Meanwhile, the militarisation of the population and a huge proliferation of small arms over the last few years has also led families to use early enforced marriage to protect their daughters against sexual violence, rape and pregnancy before marriage.
In the past, there were community authorities to judge and intervene in such cases but those too have broken down amid the ashes of war.
Back in Boma state, where Veronica is based, local officials say they are struggling to follow up on the worst cases.
Last year the South Sudanese government adopted a strategic national action plan on ending child marriage by 2030. But Lydia Peter Agolory, the local minister of gender for Pibor, Boma's capital, believes this is ambitious.
She said it is near impossible to stamp out the practice when the country is faced with such deeply ingrained cultural beliefs and limited resources.
She estimates that in some villages the percentage of children forced into marriage could even be as high as 95 per cent. She says it causes knock-on problems within the community, including health issues for the young mothers and even inter-tribal fighting over women.
The maternal mortality rate in South Sudan is already one of the highest in the world and a spike in child marriage will only see that increase.
“Now they are kind of selling their daughters to get food because everyone is so desperate,” Ms Agolory tells The Independent.
She adds that there are many cases of fistula, when an infection causes an internal passageway to form between organs, because the girls are too young and not ready to give birth. “I’ve heard some stories of women who have committed suicide because there is so much shame attached to it,” she adds.
When a fistula occurs in childbirth, it causes lifelong incontinence. It can prove fatal if not properly treated.
One woman, Muchut, now 23, was hospitalised and nearly died when she gave birth at 13 because her cervix was too small.
“I was booked when I was four years old,” she explains. “Because the dowry of 50 cattle was already paid, as soon as I got my period, aged 13, he came to collect me.
“I cried but I was taken anyway. I was too little to give birth, so I had to go to hospital, it was extremely painful.”
Ms Agolory says the practice also puts girls at greater risk of sexual, physical and emotional violence, and the vast majority of young brides regularly experience sexual violence from their husbands.
“Basically the biggest problem we face here is gender-based violence,” she says. “It is very hard to combat because it is considered a cultural norm. If you speak against it you are destroying the culture.”
The UN and ceasefire monitors say rape has been used as a weapon of war in South Sudan, and that women and girls have been routinely abducted and forced into sexual slavery.
At a release of child soldiers last week in Yambio, a southern town, all but a handful of the girl soldiers who were waiting to be freed were balancing babies on their knees.
Sitting on the dirt-floor of a squalid school hall back in Pibor, women from the local community spoke out about the escalating daily violence they are subject to.
Every one of them was married under the age of 18, and of the 20 or so in the room, at least 15 say they have been sexually or physically assaulted while trying to complete the daily tasks expected of them.
Niyadit, 37, and a mother of nine, was just 16 years old when she had her first child. She says violence towards women had become part of daily life in South Sudan.
“We are attacked when we get firewood, when we need to cut grass in the bush, and get the water,” she explains, while breastfeeding her youngest.
“I was ambushed in February 2016 when gathering wood and nearly beaten to death. It’s normal.”
Oxfam this week urged the South Sudanese authorities to take urgent action by investing significantly to end child marriage. They told the government to address the wider systemic problem that women are simply not sufficiently represented in society. The government promised in a peace agreement to ensure that 35 per cent of the country's executive positions were filled by women – but that has yet to happen.
Donor fatigue is another problem for international aid agencies. South Sudan’s humanitarian response plan last year was only two-thirds funded and this year they need more money to reach more in need.
Oxfam has had to end specific programmes focused on gender-based violence and child marriage early, due to plunging budgets.
Back on the long dirt track ride to the clinic, Veronica looks more like a little girl carrying her baby sister than a mother with the weight of the world on her shoulders.
The baby, who is struggling to breathe, stares at the ceiling of the car.
“I live off tapping the blood of live cattle to survive,” she says, staring blankly ahead.
“I don’t need much – I don’t want to be a burden. I just need the international community to help me find a job, so I can sustain myself and survive.”
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