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Sustainable Development Goals

New Child Marriages, Cohabitation With a Child Law in Sierra Leone Lauded

The newly-signed Sierre Leone law outlawing child marriage also says that those who entered into marriage as children before the new legislation came into effect can petition for annulment. Credit: Joyce Chimbi/IPS

The newly-signed Sierre Leone law outlawing child marriage also says that those who entered into marriage as children before the new legislation came into effect can petition for annulment. Credit: Joyce Chimbi/IPS

FREETOWN & NAIROBI, Jul 11 2024 (IPS) - “A person shall not contract marriage with a child,” Sierra Leone’s landmark Prohibition of Child Marriage Act 2024 says, outlawing, in no uncertain terms, child marriage, giving consent to and attempted child marriage, officiating, attending and promoting child marriage, and use of force or ill-treatment of a child.

The legislation was signed by Sierra Leone President Julius Maada Bio earlier in July in a ceremony organized by First Lady Fatima Bio, whose “Hands Off Our Girls” campaign played a crucial role in this achievement.

Men who marry girls under 18 face 15 years in prison, a fine of around USD 4,000, or both.

Fatou Gueye Ndir, Senior Regional Engagement and Advocacy Officer for Girls Not Brides, told IPS that the power of the new legislation towards ending harmful practices cannot be overemphasized, as “it also includes provisions for enforcing penalties on offenders, protecting victims’ wives, and ensuring access to education and support services for young girls affected.” 

Girls Not Brides is a global partnership of over 1,400 civil society organizations committed to ending child marriage and enabling girls to fulfill their potential. Fatou says the new law has injected new life into the fight against child marriage and early and forced marriages in Sierra Leone.

“This is a turning point. We call upon the government to continue to provide support services for affected girls and access to education, which are essential so that girls are protected and are not negatively impacted by criminalization of child marriage.”

The law also prohibits conspiracy to cause child marriage and aiding and abetting child marriage. So comprehensive is the new law that it also prohibits cohabitation with a child, any attempt to do so, conspiracy to cause cohabitation with a child and, aiding and abetting cohabitation with a child.

Fatima Maada Bio, the First Lady of Sierra Leone championed the legislation with her Hands Off Our Girls campaign. Credit: UN

Fatima Maada Bio, the First Lady of Sierra Leone, championed the legislation with her Hands Off Our Girls campaign. Credit: UN

UNICEF says in 2020 alone, nearly 800,000 girls under the age of 18 were married, accounting for a third of the girls in Sierra Leone. Half of them married before they turned 15. So prevalent is the child marriage scourge that approximately nine percent of all children will have gotten married by age 15, and 30 percent by age 18.

Hannah Yambasu, director for Women Against Violence and Exploitation in Society Sierra Leone (WAVES-SL), which is a national NGO, told IPS that in the absence of a law prohibiting child marriages, “the compulsory education policy, where all children must go to school, has not been enough to keep girls within the education system. There are ethnic groups and communities that believe girls, in and out of school, should not turn 18 years old before getting married.”

She says girls entered risky territory at the age of 12 and that many were subsequently forced into child marriages and their lifelong consequences.

Yambasu agrees, saying that the law in and of itself is not enough and concerted efforts must be made to sensitize the community on all sections of the law, especially as the Customary Marriage and Divorce Act 2009 allowed for child marriages with the consent of a parent or guardian and did not stipulate a minimum age of marriage. Stressing that massive, grassroots civic education is urgently needed.

Fatou said effective implementation of the law will lead to substantial gains and positive outcomes in education, health and the economic advancement of women. Emphasizing that child marriage and education are strongly interlinked, as girls who stay longer in school are protected from child marriages. Furthermore, girls will have fewer disruption caused by early marriage or early pregnancy and, are more likely to perform better.

“Child marriage is linked to girls’ pregnancy, so the law will progressively help reduce maternal and infant mortality. Delaying marriage and pregnancy will significantly lower the risk associated with early childbirth, including all the complications that often lead to higher rates of maternal and infant mortality,” Fatou says.

Further indicating that girls who avoid early child marriage are less likely to experience the psychological trauma or stress associated with child marriage, leading to improved mental health outcomes.

“When more girls complete their education, there will be a larger pool of educated women entering the workforce, contributing to economic growth and development. Educated women are more likely to secure better-paying jobs, which can elevate the economic status of their families, reducing poverty levels,” she says.

The rapid rise in the child population in Africa necessitates radical steps towards ending all harmful practices, including child marriage, as they derail progress towards universal access to education. Child marriage is particularly a major obstacle to sustainable development. Six of the world’s 10 countries with the highest rates of child marriage are in West and Central Africa, where the average prevalence across the region remains high—nearly 41 per cent of girls marry before reaching the age of 18.

The new Sierra Leone law is timely, especially in light of the Sustainable Development Goals Report 2024, which details the significant challenges the world is facing in making substantial strides towards achieving the SDGs. It features areas with setbacks while also showcasing where tangible progress has been made, for instance, the world continues to lag in its pursuit of gender equality by 2030.

While harmful practices are decreasing, the report finds it are not keeping up with population growth. One in five girls still marries before age 18, compared to one in four 25 years ago—68 million child marriages were averted in this period.

The report raises concerns that far too many women still cannot realize the right to decide on their sexual and reproductive health. Violence against women persists, disproportionately affecting those with disabilities. With just six years remaining, current progress falls far short of what is required to meet the SDGs. Without massive investment and scaled-up action, the report calls into question the achievement of the SDGs.

The UN’s Summit of the Future will be held in September 2024. A once-in-a-generation opportunity to enhance cooperation on critical challenges and reaffirm existing commitments, including to the Sustainable Development Goals.

Yambasu understands these challenges all too well, as she works closely with adolescent girls, women and vulnerable persons, including those with disabilities and implores all governments, stakeholders and the older generation to give girls a chance to live their life as they choose

“A chance to go to school and to later on choose the husband of their choice. They go into forced marriages with their hearts bleeding and the trajectory of their lives changing for the worst. All children deserve protection and happiness, and we now have a legal blueprint to safeguard their dreams,” she says.

Stressing that girls deserve “access to all the tools necessary to fully participate in developing our nations in Africa. We need to rise up against all harmful practices. The traditions are there, yes, and we want to preserve them. But let us keep only those that develop and advance our communities.”

Note: This article is brought to you by IPS Noram in collaboration with INPS Japan and Soka Gakkai International in consultative status with ECOSOC.

IPS UN Bureau Report


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