South Sudanese man responds to international backlash to his marriage

Marriage 'conforms' to traditions of his country

By JOURNALIST FARAI SEVENZO REPORTED FROM NAIROBI, KENYA, AND CNN'S RALPH ELLIS WROTE THE STORY IN ATLANTA. CNN'S BIANCA BRITTON AND ANNA CARDOVILLIS CONTRIBUTED TO THIS REPORT.
Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

(CNN) - The South Sudanese man at the center of a row over his recent wedding says the marriage process conformed to the traditions of his country and denies that an "auction" for the bride took place, as was alleged by a UK-based child advocacy organization.

In a telephone interview with CNN from Juba, the capital of South Sudan, Ruben Kok Alat refused to confirm the age of the bride -- reported to be 16 or 17 -- but said it was a "marriage like any other."

The family of the bride reportedly received 500 cows, three cars and $10,000 from the groom at the time of the marriage. South Sudanese human rights lawyer Phillips Ngong told CNN the assets were proposed in the context of an auction that took place in person, and the dowry amount pledged was higher than usual, which prompted a discussion on Facebook.

Speaking to CNN, Kok Alat did not discuss the dowry size and said media commentary about the terms of the marriage being decided through an "auction" was "fake."

"I'm personally disappointed, and many people who know how our tradition works are most disappointed," he said. "There is no human that can auction another human. South Sudan is a country with a high level of human rights."

Kok Alat says what took place was part of the culture of the Dinka people, the largest ethnic group in South Sudan.

"This is just a marriage like any other marriage. I don't know why it has become more special than the other traditional marriages, which are done before and which are going to be done again," he said.

Concern over social media

The practice of dowry negotiations is traditional in Dinka culture and in much of East Africa and beyond.

According to children's rights organization Plan International, the bride was "married off to the winning bidder" at a November 3 ceremony in the country's Eastern Lake Section. Five men, some of whom were reportedly high-ranking South Sudanese government officials, participated in the "auction," Plan International said.

Plan International said it originally became aware of the marriage via the Voice of America but subsequently confirmed the details through its local staff.

Activists said they are concerned this practice could inspire other families to use social media sites to receive larger payments.

"In South Sudan, Facebook and social media is a brand new thing. Someone just took a picture. And it just went viral," human rights lawyer Ngong said.

The wedding occurred November 3, according to Suzy Natana of the South Sudanese National Alliance for Women Lawyers, citing locals the association spoke with.

Facebook came under fire for posts that discussed the price being offered for the bride by the highest bidder, as well as how much Facebook users would offer for her.

Though Facebook said one post was taken down on November 9, posts discussing the dowry were still live on Friday, November 23.

Facebook said in a statement to CNN that any form of "human trafficking -- whether posts, pages, ads or groups is not allowed on Facebook."

"We removed the post and permanently disabled the account belonging to the person who posted this to Facebook," a company spokesperson said in a statement.

The man who won the bidding for the teenager, businessman Kok Alat, did not find out about the girl through Facebook, Ngong said.

But the marriage of the girl is still egregious, Ngong said, particularly as a state government official is believed to be among the bidders. Ngong said it was a direct violation of child marriage laws by those in power: "Anything that happens that is not in the best interest of the child is a violation. And the constitution and child laws are very clear on that."

South Sudan's Constitution states that marriage requires the "free and full consent" of those intending to marry. A child is defined as anyone under the age of 18, according to the country's Child Act, 2008, which adds that "every child has the right to be protected from early marriage."

The-CNN-Wire ™ & © 2019 Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All rights reserved.