A recent study showed that between 4% to 15% of Lebanese women marry under the age of 18. Picture for illustrative purpose. Image Credit: Shutterstock

Dubai: End of October, a 16-year-old Sudanese girl was put up for auction on Facebook. Of the five men that placed bids some are reportedly high-ranking government officials.

The picture of the girl, who is from south Sudan, was posted on Facebook on October 25 and it stayed online for two weeks before Facebook took it down.

But it was too late as media reports said the girl’s father received from the highest bidder, a wealthy businessman, 500 cows, three cars and $10,000 (Dh36,730) in exchange for his daughter.

That a girl could be sold for marriage on the world’s biggest social networking site ... is beyond belief.

- George Otim of Plan International South Sudan, a children’s rights organisation

The girl was married at a ceremony on November 3 in the country’s Eastern Lakes State, and pictures of her in a white wedding gown were shared on various social media sites. Some reports referred to her as a “virgin bride” or “the most expensive woman in South Sudan”.

“That a girl could be sold for marriage on the world’s biggest social networking site ... is beyond belief,” said George Otim, country director of Plan International South Sudan, a children’s rights organisation.

He added in a statement published on the organisation’s website: “While it is common for dowries to be used in marriages in South Sudanese culture, nothing can excuse the way this girl – who is still a child – has been treated as nothing more than an object, sold off to the bidder prepared to offer the most money and goods.

“Plan International is calling on the South Sudanese government to investigate this matter and suspend any officials who took part in the bidding. We would encourage any girls who find themselves in similar situations of forced and early marriages to report these to the police.”

Despite the legal age of marriage being 18, more than half of the South Sudanese girls are wed before their 18th birthday, says the United Nations children’s agency UNICEF.

High levels of poverty, conflict, instability, low levels of literacy and gender gaps in education have fueled child marriage in South Sudan for years, according to campaigners.

Many South Sudanese communities see child marriage as a way to protect girls from pre-marital sex and unwanted pregnancies, or to exchange them for dowry of resources such as cattle.

Facebook blamed

Facebook has come under heavy criticism after the platform was used to auction off the child.

Child rights groups welcomed Facebook’s action in taking down the post - but said the post had been public for several days and ultimately resulted in the illegal marriage of a minor.

This could create a dangerous precedent whereby other families may seek to use social media sites to get greater dowries for their daughters, according to charity Equality Now.

“Facebook has a responsibility [of] securing and protecting the rights of women and girls,” Judy Gitau, a lawyer at Equality Now, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “They need to put sufficient resources into monitoring what is on their platform.”

Facebook told Reuters it removed the post and the user from its platform for violating its community standards on Nov 9, when it was made aware of the material.

“Any form of human trafficking whether posts, pages, ads or groups that co-ordinate this activity are not allowed on Facebook,” a spokesman said.

Campaigners also called on the Sudanese authorities to take action against those involved in the bidding as some were reportedly state officials, according to local media.

Young girl’s suicide

Earlier this month, people in Lebanon woke up to the horrific news of a 14-year-old girl who committed suicide by hanging herself at home.

Later investigations revealed that the Syrian girl was under pressure from her family to get married.

In Lebanon, parents tend to marry off their girls at a young age.

A very recent study showed that between 4% to 15% of Lebanese women marry under the age of 18.

The Lebanese Women Democratic Gathering, a feminist NGO based in Beirut, launched an awareness campaign this month against the issue of child brides.

Their campaign which made a huge impact in the Lebanese society, was a controversial one.

It started with a Facebook and an Instagram accounts that carried the name “Young 3arous” [Young Bride]. The accounts were posting images for minor girls with their names and ages. The accounts also offered a local phone number for more details.

It did not stop there. Brochures were distributed carrying the same name “Young 3arous” with the girls’ images.

The Lebanese community exploded in outrage that day with thousands of social media posts calling users to report the accounts and others, with a call to contact the number provided in the advertisement to shame them.

It did not last long, the two accounts were shut down by the government.

Second day, a Lebanese local TV hosted the activists from the Lebanese Women Democratic Gathering-RDFL, who revealed that they were behind the outrageous campaign and it is one of their efforts to put more pressure on the government to end laws that allow the marriage of minors.

The organization also published on their website a continuation of “Young 3arous” campaign where they posted real stories of girls who got married early and suffered. Some of the girls were killed by their husbands.

The campaigners also published videos and audio recordings of phone calls they received from people inquiring about the advertisement trying to seriously find young brides for marriage.

Some considered the campaign a success, as it succeeded in achieving the main aim behind it to put more pressure on the government to change laws and criminalize minors marriage. However, some criticised the campaign’s tactic that might inspire others to actually do it in real life.