In the world's newest nation, South Sudan, women and girls are confronted with the formidable challenges of daily life: child marriage, gender-based violence and illiteracy. Tens of thousands of girls, up to 40 percent of the population, are forced to become child brides, denying them their right to education. The child and teenage pregnancies that follow marriage put these girls at grave risk. South Sudan is one of the most dangerous places for any girl or woman to give birth; it has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world.
The situation is compounded by customary traditions such as dowry or "bride price", usually in the form of cattle, the main source of income for rural communities, which perpetuates this practice and to some extent, the veil of silence.
The disturbing prevalence of gender based violence in the country affects at least four out of every ten women, with many more cases going unreported. Even more alarming, studies indicate that eight out of ten South Sudanese men and women have tolerance for violence against women.
The UN Mission in the Republic of South Sudan (UNMISS) is, together with partners, working to reverse the practice of child marriage and prevent gender based violence. Through a number of approaches and initiatives, we are mobilizing communities, NGOs, and the Government as change agents in this effort.
At the same time, we are also mandated to monitor, investigate, and report incidents of conflict-related gender based violence to the Security Council. UNMISS is the first UN peacekeeping mission to deploy Women's Protection Advisors across the country solely dedicated to this critical function and to strengthen prevention and response to sexual and gender-based violence. This is done in partnership with UN agencies and other stakeholders. Jointly, we have also brought women together through community peacebuilding forums. They focus on efforts to address the indifference, inequality, and impunity in South Sudan, which has allowed these forms of violence to persist.
The UN has also focused on the empowerment of South Sudanese girls and women, encouraging their active participation in civil society and government. In this regard, noticeable progress has been made in the area of political participation. Women currently make up almost 30 percent of the legislature, with more than 25 percent holding ministerial positions. According to the Government's own statistics, in Northern Bahr el Ghazal State, there are more women than men in the State Assembly, an example that should provide as an example for the rest of the country.
We are celebrating March 8, International Women's Day. As the UN says this is about "the story of ordinary women as makers of history; it is rooted in the centuries-old struggle of women to participate in society on an equal footing with men."
While South Sudan is in the middle of this struggle, the country has been making strides. Recently, the country conducted "16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence". The national theme was "Promote Peace at Home, Stop Gender-Based Violence and Child Marriage" with events carried out around the country to strengthen local work, develop and share new strategies, as well as demonstrate solidarity of women in South Sudan and around the world. Promoting education and ending violence against women is an indispensable part of this equation.
South Sudan's women were the backbone of the society throughout the civil war. Their role was indispensable.
I would like to recognize all South Sudanese women and girls, for their immense contributions to the birth of the world's newest nation, for being architects of its history, and for paving the way for future generations to live in a more equitable society. Let us do what we can to make sure that the future girls of South Sudan will have opportunities their mothers only could dream of. And let us hope that these girls will become the backbone of the new nation.
Hilde F. Johnson is the special representative of the United Nations Secretary-General in South Sudan.