Sierra Leone Outlaws Child Marriage in Landmark Legislation

Sierra Leone's Prohibition of Child Marriage Act 2024 criminalizes marriages involving minors, with penalties of up to 15 years in prison or $4,000 fine.

Sierra Leone Outlaws Child Marriage in Landmark Legislation
Photo Source: By UNESCO/Lily Chavance, June 29th, 2022, via flickr

10/07/24

Carolina Batista

Women’s Rights Researcher,

Global Human Rights Defence.

 

In a decisive move aimed at safeguarding the rights of young girls, Sierra Leone has passed a historic law outlawing child marriage. After being approved by the Parliament, the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act 2024 was signed into law by President Julius Maada Bio on July 2nd, criminalising any marriage involving individuals under the age of 18. This legislative milestone comes as a critical step in addressing a pervasive issue that has long plagued the country.

Child marriage remains a significant problem in Sierra Leone, where about one third of girls are married off before they reach adulthood, and half of them being as young as 15 (UNFPA, UNICEF, 2020). Economic hardships often force families to withdraw girls from school, leading to marriages intended to alleviate financial burdens or settle debts. This practice, particularly prevalent in rural regions, not only deprives young girls of their childhood and right to education but also exposes them to severe health risks associated with early pregnancies in a country with the highest maternal mortality rates in the world (UNICEF, 2016).

Under the new law, perpetrators of child marriage face strict penalties, including up to 15 years in prison or a fine of approximately $4,000, or both. This penalty is significant in a country where the gross domestic product per capita was about $433 in 2023 (World Bank, 2023). Unlike many similar laws in Africa, this legislation extends penalties to include not only the husband but also people who enable the marriage, such as parents, guardians, officiants, and wedding guests, who may face a ten-year sentence or a fine of about $2,500, or both. The law also prohibits cohabitation with a minor and mandates support services for affected children, ensuring access to education and counselling. Children married under the law can seek financial compensation and have the option to petition for an annulment.

President Bio and his wife, Fatima Bio, were instrumental in advocating for the child marriage ban. President Bio allocated 22 percent of the national budget to education and promoted greater female representation in government. First Lady Fatima Bio played a pivotal role in her "Hands Off Our Girls" campaign, which aims to raise awareness about the harms of child marriage and promote girls' education nationwide. In an interview with BBC World Service Newshour, the First Lady described the bill as a "personal battle", reflecting her own experience nearly becoming a victim of child marriage. She emphasised that child marriage robs children of their dreams and undermines their identity before they fully develop.

Human rights organisations and activists have hailed the new law as a significant victory, positioning Sierra Leone as a leader in the fight against child marriage in West Africa. They underscore the need for comprehensive implementation, including robust awareness campaigns in rural areas where the practice is most prevalent. Additionally, they urge the government to tackle other harmful practices such as female genital mutilation. Approximately 61 percent of girls aged 15 to 19 in Sierra Leone have undergone female genital mutilation (UNFPA, 2018), a deeply entrenched cultural tradition that poses significant health risks and is internationally condemned as a violation of human rights by the World Health Organisation.

Looking ahead, Sierra Leone's government faces the critical task of ensuring widespread understanding and compliance with the law while addressing entrenched cultural norms that perpetuate child marriage. By prioritising education, economic empowerment, and community engagement, Sierra Leone aims to break the cycle of early marriage and create a safer, more equitable environment for its young girls. It also sets a precedent for other nations in the region, notably Tanzania and Zambia, to follow suit and protect the rights of their children.

 

Sources and further readings

Africanews. (2024, June 23). Sierra Leone outlaws child marriage in new legislation. Africanews. Retrieved July 4, 2024, from https://www.africanews.com/2024/06/23/sierra-leone-outlaws-child-marriage-in-new-legislation/

CBS. (2024, July 3). Sierra Leone outlaws child marriage. Even witnesses to such weddings can face jail time. CBS. Retrieved July 4, 2024, from https://www.cbsnews.com/news/sierra-leone-outlaws-child-marriage-witnesses-weddings-can-face-jail-time/#:~:text=Even%20witnesses%20to%20such%20weddings%20can%20face%20jail%20time.,-July%203%2C%202024&text=A%20bill%20that%20bans%20child,third%20are%20married%20before%20adulthood

Fofana, U. (2024, July 3). Child marriage ban welcomed in Sierra Leone. BBC News. Retrieved July 4, 2024, from https://www.bbc.com/news/articles/cx02p44px1do

Kabari, B. (2024, June 28). Sierra Leone Acts to Ban Child Marriage. Human Rights Watch. Retrieved July 4, 2024, from https://www.hrw.org/news/2024/06/28/sierra-leone-acts-ban-child-marriage

Nierenberg, A. (2024, July 3). How to Stop Child Marriage? Punish Husbands, Parents and Wedding Guests. The New York Times. Retrieved July 4, 2024, from https://www.nytimes.com/2024/07/03/world/africa/child-marriage-sierra-leone-africa.html

UNFPA. (2018). Female genital mutilation. United Nations Population Fund - Sierra Leone. Retrieved July 4, 2024, from https://sierraleone.unfpa.org/en/topics/female-genital-mutilation-4

UNFPA, UNICEF. (2020). 2020 Country Profile - Sierra Leone. United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund. Retrieved July 4, 2024, from  https://www.unicef.org/media/111401/file/Child-marriage-country-profile-Sierra-Leone-2021.pdf

UNICEF. (2016). Maternal, Neonatal, Child and Adolescent Health. United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund - Sierra Leone. Retrieved July 4, 2024, from https://www.unicef.org/sierraleone/maternal-neonatal-child-and-adolescent-health#:~:text=The%20maternal%20mortality%20rate%20in,in%20every%20100%2C000%20live%20births

World Bank. (2023). GDP per capita (current US$) - Sierra Leone. World Bank Group - Data Bank. Retrieved July 4, 2024, from https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.PCAP.CD?locations=SL