Photo credit: Dominic Chavez | World Bank
Child marriage rates
UNICEF 2017 % Married by 15
UNICEF 2017 % Married by 18
* Child marriage prevalence is the percentage of women 20-24 years old who were married or in union before they were 18 years old (UNICEF State of the World’s Children, 2017)
What's the child marriage rate? How big of an issue is child marriage?
Child marriage is most common in Koinadugu, Tonkolili, Kambia, and Port Loko.
Are there country-specific drivers of child marriage in this country?
Child marriage is driven by the belief that girls are somehow inferior to boys. In Sierra Leone, child marriage is exacerbated by:
- Level of education:Over half of girls in Sierra Leone with no education were married off before the age of 18, compared to 10% of those with higher education. Girls are often seen as “leavers” who will eventually join another family through marriage. Many parents see little value in investing in their education.
- Poverty: Sierra Leone is one of the world’s poorest countries. This particularly impacts girls, who face very limited educational and economic opportunities. Some families marry their daughters off to receive dowry payments, reduce their perceived economic burden or offer them what they think will be a better life.
- Female Genital Mutilation and Cutting (FGM/C): 86% of women and girls in Sierra Leone has undergone FGM. This practice is considered a marker of a girl’s readiness for marriage. FGM is a central step in the initiation process to a secret society called Bondo. Bondo is deeply entwined with other harmful practices against women and girls. Sending girls to be initiated into the Bondo Society, and therefore to undergo FGM, is said to help protect a girl’s virginity and ensure they will remain faithful to their husband. The experience of Bondo is regarded as necessary preparation for marriage and families reportedly marry off their daughters after they take part in Bondo.
- Adolescent pregnancy: Child marriage is often seen as the best solution if a girl becomes pregnant, even if it is due to forced sex, as it reduces the embarrassment on her family. In extreme cases, girls who have found “love matches” on their own and have become pregnant have then been forced to marry strangers in order to enter into a “clean” marriage.
Humanitarian settings can encompass a wide range of situations before, during, and after natural disasters, conflicts, and epidemics. They exacerbate poverty, insecurity, and lack of access to services such as education, factors which all drive child marriage. While gender inequality is a root cause of child marriage in both stable and crisis contexts, often in times of crisis, families see child marriage as a way to cope with greater economic hardship and to protect girls from increased violence. In Sierra Leone, child marriage was exacerbated by:
- Epidemics: Sierra Leone was the most affected country by the Ebola virus disease. The outbreak (2014-2016) placed enormous strain on public service provision in Sierra Leone. Closure of schools and a lack of protection for girls created a more enabling environment for child pregnancy, child marriage and sex transactions between young girls and older men as a means of economic survival for families.
Armed conflict: During Sierra Leone Civil War (1991–2002), approximately a quarter of child soldiers were girls. This turned age and gender norms upside down, which may have indirectly influenced perceptions that a girl is old enough to marry when she reaches puberty.
What has this country committed to?
Sierra Leone has committed to eliminate child, early and forced marriage by 2030 in line with target 5.3 of the Sustainable Development Goals. During its Voluntary National Review at the 2016 High Level Political Forum, the government stated that the target falls under “Pillar 8: Gender and Women’s Empowerment” in its Agenda for Prosperity. At the 2019 High Level Political Forum, the government reported its support to the First Lady’s “Hands-Off Our Girls” campaign to end child marriage and reduce teenage pregnancy.
Sierra Leone co-sponsored the following Human Rights Council resolutions: the 2013 procedural resolution on child, early and forced marriage, the 2015 resolution on child, early and forced marriage, the 2017 resolution on recognising the need to address child, early and forced marriage in humanitarian contexts, and the 2019 resolution on the consequences of child marriage. In 2014, Sierra Leone also signed a joint statement at the Human Rights Council calling for a resolution on child marriage.
Sierra Leone ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1990, which sets a minimum age of marriage of 18, and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 1988, which obligates states to ensure free and full consent to marriage.
In 2016 the UN Child Rights Committee urged Sierra Leone to take “concrete and consistent measures”, including the harmonisation of laws, to eliminate child marriage, and to conduct awareness-raising on the negative consequences of such.
During its 2016 Universal Periodic Review, Sierra Leone agreed to examine recommendations to prohibit harmful practices including child marriage and FGM/C.
In 2002 Sierra Leone ratified the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, including Article 21 regarding the prohibition of child marriage.
In 2003 Sierra Leone signed, but has not yet ratified, the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa, including Article 6 which sets the minimum age for marriage as 18.
In 2016 Sierra Leone launched the African Union Campaign to end child marriage in Africa.
As a member of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), in 2017 Sierra Leone adopted the Strategic Framework for Strengthening National Child Protection Systems under which protecting children from marriage is a priority. In June 2019, the ECOWAS Heads of State endorsed the ECOWAS Child Policy and Strategic Action Plan and the 2019-2030 Roadmap on prevention and response to child marriage.
In addition, in July 2019, the ECOWAS First Ladies signed “The Niamey Declaration: Call to End Child Marriage and to promote the Education and empowerment of Girls”, calling Member States to initiate legislative, institutional and budgetary reforms to implement the Roadmap.
In 2019, at the Nairobi Summit on ICPD25, the Government of Sierra Leone committed to the overall goal of zero Gender Based Violence and harmful practices by 2030, and enact the Prohibition of Child Marriage Bill which will criminalise child marriage for all types of marriages by the end of 2020.
Sierra Leone is a partner developing country of the Global Partnership for Education (GPE).
What is the government doing to address this at the national level?
Sierra Leone is a focus country of the UNICEF-UNFPA Global Programme to Accelerate Action to End Child Marriage, a multi-donor, multi-stakeholder programme working across 12 countries over four years. In 2018, as part of the Global Programme, 225 community action plans were implemented across nine districts, engaging a total of 14,374 families and community members to promote positive social norms to prevent child marriage, teenage pregnancy and female genital mutilation.
In late 2018, the government, in collaboration with non-governmental organisation partners and United Nations agencies, launched a National Strategy on the Prevention of Teenage Pregnancy and Ending Child Marriage in Sierra Leone (2018–2022). The National Strategy details the commitments to tackling the challenge of adolescent pregnancy and child marriage made across five government ministries and organised in six pillars:
- Improve the policy and legal environment for the protection of adolescents.
- Provide adolescent and young people friendly (AYPF) services.
- Ensure all adolescents have access to comprehensive sex education and an enabling learning environment.
- Increase demand for AYPF services.
- Engage and empower communities to reduce of adolescent pregnancy and child marriage.
- Ensure the coordination, monitoring and evaluation of the strategy.
The strategy will be integrated into national and regional development plans and frameworks through a nationwide coordination mechanism led by the National Secretariat for the Reduction of Teenage Pregnancy.
The strategy launch took place alongside the inauguration of a new flagship campaign Hands Off Our Girls led by Sierra Leone’s President Julius Maada Bio and First Lady Fatima Bio, which focuses on ending child marriage and reducing teenage pregnancy to empower women.
Previously, the government implemented the “Let Girls be Girls, Not Mothers” (2013–2015), a two year national strategy for the reduction of teenage pregnancy developed in response to the recognition by national authorities of the high rates of teenage pregnancy and child marriage in the country.
The former First Lady of Sierra Leone, Sia Nyama Koroma (the current First Lady is Fatima Bio), initiated the idea of a regional high-level meeting on child marriage in West and Central Africa, which was held in 2017 in Dakar.
Until March 2020, visibly pregnant girls were banned from attending school and sitting exams. The ban was lifted following a ruling of the Community Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in December 2019, which ordered it to be revoked with immediate effect. In addition, Sierra Leone will put in place a policy on ‘’radical inclusion” and “comprehensive safety’’ to ensure that girls who are pregnant or have a child attend school. This is an important measure to improve education for girls in the country, especially considering that teenage pregnancy is one of the drivers of child marriage.
What is the minimum legal framework around marriage?
Under the Child Rights Act 2007 the minimum legal age of marriage is 18 years. However this is contradicted by the Customary Marriage and Divorce Act 2009 which allows underage children to be married off with parental consent and does not stipulate a minimum age of marriage.
The National Strategy on the Prevention of Teenage Pregnancy and Ending Child Marriage foresees the harmonisation of the Child Rights Act and the Customary Marriage and Divorce Act to address child marriage.
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* Child marriage prevalence is the percentage of women 20-24 years old who were married or in union before they were 18 years old (UNICEF State of the World’s Children, 2017)
Members In Sierra Leone
- Advocacy Movement Network (AMNet)
- Central Educational Centre International (CECI)
- Chi-chi Cheery Foundation
- Child Welfare Society Sierra Leone
- Children’s Hope Initiative Sierra Leone (CHI-SL)
- Conscience International (CI)
- Defence for Children International
- Demadinor Foundation
- Economic Empowerment and Human Rights Sierra Leone (EEHRSL)
- Forum for the Development of Young People
- Girl Child Network Worldwide
- Hagancatwright Organization
- National Co-operative of Students for Self-Reliance (NACORS)
- Network Movement for Democracy and Human Rights (NMDHR)
- OneFamilyPeople (OFP)
- Passion for Humanity – Sierra Leone
- Recreation and Outdoor Pursuits through Experiential Submersion (ROPES)
- Service for Peace
- Street Youth Connection
- The Needy Today
- VSO International
- Women’s Health and Reproductive Rights Organization (WHRRO)
- Yegesie International Open College of Technology (YIOTEC)
- Young Ambassadors Sierra Leone (YASiL)
- Youth Help Sierra Leone (YOH-SL)