My desire, when it comes to reproductive choices, is to see complete equality between men and women. Empower women with control over their own bodies and wombs. Reverse the practice of child marriage. Women will then have fewer children and a better quality of life while future generations will benefit from a more stable, productive society.
Deng Adut was only seven years old when he was recruited by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). His mother, Athieu Akau Deng, was a poor, illiterate widow who was persuaded that if Deng was conscripted, he would receive training and an education, which she was unlikely to be able to give him.
For training, Deng was taught how to use an AK-47, a gun that was taller than he was, but the education he received was minimal, consisting of a few basic phrases in Arabic. At age seven, he was despatched across the desert, taking over a month to walk to the camp in Ethiopia where he would be based. Deng spent the next seven years fighting for the SPLA against external forces and also, more often than not, against warring generals within the SPLA. He witnessed executions, was shot four times, and stepped on a landmine. Miraculously he survived and, at the age of 14, his brother smuggled him out of Sudan and into a refugee camp in Kenya, where an Australian woman heard his story and sponsored them both to move to Australia.
Illiterate, with no formal education, Deng struggled, but eventually he taught himself English and was awarded a scholarship to the University of Western Sydney to study law. He is now a practising lawyer in Sydney and helps many other Sudanese refugees.
In 2011, after independence, Deng returned to South Sudan to meet his mother for the first time in twenty years. Having left her when he was a child, he was unsure of his need to see her as he had no memory of any close maternal bond. When he arrived at her village, he found her sitting underneath a tamarind tree, old and arthritic, bearing the physical scars of war. At the sight of her son, Athieu raised herself with the aid of two sticks, grabbed him, held him and cried for hours.
Deng is interviewed regularly about his experiences as a child soldier and a refugee, and he has spoken out against child marriage on behalf of UN Women. As a son and soldier of South Sudan, he has seen the impact child marriage has had on the community. Early marriage means that girls are exposed to the dangers of early pregnancy and the associated health risks for themselves and their children. They are more likely to become infected with HIV/AIDS and more likely to be subjected to domestic violence. They are unlikely to finish school and, with reduced access to educational and economic opportunities, they and their families are more likely to live in poverty, this impacting on the development of their communities and their countries. The majority of girls who marry before the age of 18 are condemned to a life of hardship and oppression. This is a real paradox for many parents, given that they marry off their daughters at a young age in the belief that this will enhance their security. Conversely they are perpetuating the feminisation of poverty.
Recognising child marriage as a form of gender-based violence and a violation of basic human rights is an important step forward towards its elimination. Deng Adut, by speaking out against child marriage, is taking us closer to this goal.
 United Nations Population Fund, http://www.unfpa.org/upload/lib_pub_file/662_filename_endchildmarriage.pdf, accessed 17 November 2013.