Pupils of St. Bakhita Girl’s Boarding Primary School play in the compound during a break. (Courtesy photo)

Kapoeta parents storm boarding school to remove daughter to force her into marriage

The parents of a girl from the Toposa community on Monday caused commotion at St. Bakhita Girl’s Boarding Primary School, a Catholic-run school Narus, in Eastern Equatoria State’s Kapoeta East County when they stormed the school to remove their daughter so that they could force her into an early marriage.

The parents of a girl from the Toposa community on Monday caused commotion at St. Bakhita Girl’s Boarding Primary School, a Catholic-run school Narus, in Eastern Equatoria State’s Kapoeta East County when they stormed the school to remove their daughter so that they could force her into an early marriage.

Sources said that the girl’s parents and relatives who amounted to more than 10 people forcibly entered the school premises in search of their daughter after a man expressed interest in marrying the 11-year-old pupil.

Sister Jane Maskow, the Headmistress of the school, told Radio Tamazuj that the enraged group engaged in altercations with teachers and resorted to violence while demanding their daughter’s release to be married off in exchange for bride wealth.

“Last week, several parents came to retrieve their daughter, but they were unable to take them home. Today (Monday), the situation took us by surprise as the same individuals returned while classes were in session and they entered every classroom searching for the girl. Fortunately, they did not find the girl,” she narrated. “They were adamant about taking her and even attempted to forcibly remove her from the office, but we refused. I managed to usher the girl into the staff room where the teachers were. The intruders proceeded to confront the teachers, throwing stones and brandishing sticks.” 

Sister Maskow added: “They accused the school of harboring thousands of cows and insisted on marrying off the girl, despite her young age and their actions disrupted the learning environment, as the girl should only be 11 years old and in class three.”

Hellen Lochom, a girls’ mentor at St. Bakhita Girl’s School, expressed shock at the incident, emphasizing the danger it poses to the pupils’ lives and the trauma it inflicts, leading to them missing lessons.

She lambasted the security personnel in the area for failing to protect the girls’ rights and for allegedly accepting bribes. 

“Monday’s events were deeply troubling, disrupting the learning environment and causing trauma, especially for our younger students. The situation is dire, and the father of the girl they want to take and marry off is village chief and is involved and this exacerbates the problem,” she stated. “The safety of our children is compromised and the lack of action from security officials is alarming. It seems bribery influences their actions, making it easier for such incidents to occur without consequence.”

Meanwhile, Oting Gaid, the Executive Director of Kapoeta East County, confirmed the incident and said police officers were deployed to the school to calm the situation. 

He acknowledged that most security personnel in the area lack proper training in protection and security measures and called upon the state government to deploy adequately trained forces to address criminal activities in the region.

“It is true that on Monday at around 10 a.m. some locals invaded a church school called St. Bakhita Primary School and attempted to forcefully take their daughter for marriage. However, they were unsuccessful in locating the girl,” he said. “In response, the police, in collaboration with the local government of Kapoeta East, deployed a small team of officers to protect the girls. This proactive measure aims to safeguard the girls in case the locals return.”

“Unfortunately, our current police force lacks the necessary training to adequately protect children and I urge higher authorities to send trained forces to ensure the safety of the girls here,” Gaid added.

He said the unnamed girl is still under protection within the school compound but that her relatives are still lingering around with plans to take their daughter.

Eunice Nakiru, a women’s activist in Eastern Equatoria State, strongly condemned the attempt to forcefully remove the girl from school and the harmful practice of forced and early marriages and called on the government to intervene and hold the parents accountable.

“This incident is truly distressing. The teachers did their best to prevent these parents from taking the girl away, but this act constitutes a serious case of gender-based violence (GBV). If the identities of these individuals are known, they should be apprehended, especially the parents. If possible, authorities should engage with them to address the issue, otherwise, there is a risk they will return to take the girl forcibly,” she advised. “It is clear she is already in danger and relocating her to a different school is imperative, as this is not the first time such incidents have occurred. Urgent intervention, even from the Governor, is needed to ensure the girl can continue her education safely.”

Forced and early marriages are unfortunately prevalent in Eastern Equatoria State and across South Sudan. A UNFPA study highlights the widespread occurrence of gender-based violence (GBV) among women and girls aged 15-64 in the country, with South Sudan ranking second in GBV prevalence in East Africa.

South Sudan laws provide for protection from sexual abuse and exploitation, and gender-based violence, including rape, early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation.