The report released by the Support Peace Development Initiative Organization (SPIDO) found alarming rates of early child marriages, pregnancies and prostitution in the three Equatoria states of Eastern, Central and Western respectively.
The report uncovers widespread incidents of sexual-related offences, mostly rape, attempted rape, sexual harassment and murder of children.
The organization said it documented at least 1,535 cases of child marriages and teenage pregnancies in the Equatoria region since South Sudan shut down schools in mid-March as a preventive measure against the COVID-19 pandemic.
Western Equatoria leads in cases of teenage marriage and pregnancies, with 1,182 cases followed by Eastern Equatoria with 318 cases, and Central Equatoria with 35 cases respectively.
“In this short period, over 1,500 girls have been married off in three regions. This tells that the situation could be worse in other regions where child marriage was rampant even before the COVID-19 lockdown,” SPIDO executive director, Wodcan Savior Lazarus told Xinhua in Juba.
South Sudan’s legal marital age is 18, but the country has for long grappled with high rates of early and forced marriages.
According to the UN children’s agency (UNICEF), South Sudan has the seventh-highest prevalence rate of child marriage in the world.
About 52 percent of girls in the country are married before their 18th birthday and nine percent marry before clocking 15 years old.
The civil society group warned that continued closure of schools and a biting economic crisis exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis could lead to more child marriages.
“Poverty is making some parents force their girls into marriages with the hope of getting dowry because, in many South Sudanese cultures, girls are looked at as sources of wealth,” Lazarus said.
The report calls for urgent measures to prevent and mitigate child abuse. It also called for the provision of medical care for child abuse survivors and increased advocacy for human rights.
The report further recommends the establishment of a juvenile justice legal aid scheme in the East African country.