The new country quickly plunged into five years of civil war that ended with a fragile peace deal in 2018, but deadly inter-communal violence continues, and most people remain trapped in poverty. Climate shocks like flooding, along with rising food prices caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, have deepened widespread hunger.

South Sudan has the world’s fifth-highest prevalence of child marriage, according to the U.N., which says the practice is a violation of human rights, a serious impediment to literacy and a major cause of persistent poverty. About a third of girls in the country are pregnant before turning 15, according to UNICEF.

The price of a daughter, determined in negotiations between her father and would-be husband, is typically 50 to 100 cows, each worth up to $1,000. A girl viewed as beautiful, fertile and of high social rank can bring as many as 200 cows. One girl in a well-publicized case a few years ago was auctioned off for 520 cows, plus cars.

The younger the girl marries, the more the family gets cattle in return”

Families worry that sending girls to school exposes them to dangers such as sexual assault that could lower their value when it comes time to look for marriage offers. And yet the experts say early marriage exposes girls to domestic abuse, including rape.

South Sudanese law limits marriage to those age 18 and over, it’s rarely enforced, particularly in rural areas.

South Sudan’s independence from Sudan in 2011 brought widespread hope for prosperity and peace for the country’s 12 million people, but little of that has materialized.

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