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Sierra Leone

Child marriage rates
UNICEF 2017 % Married by 15
13%
UNICEF 2017 % Married by 18
39%
International Ranking*

18

* References

* 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)

Photo credit: Dominic Chavez | World Bank

Child marriage rates
UNICEF 2017 % Married by 15
13%
UNICEF 2017 % Married by 18
39%
International Ranking*

18

* References

* 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?

39% of girls in Sierra Leone are married before their 18th birthday and 13% are married before the age of 15.

According to UNICEF, Sierra Leone has the 18th highest prevalence rate of child marriage in the world.

Child marriage is most common in Port Loko, Kenema, Kono and Tonkolili.

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 also driven by:

  • Level of 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, and approximately 70% of young people there are under or unemployed. 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 a better life.
  • Humanitarian context: The Ebola outbreak 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 marriage and sex transactions between young girls and older men as a means of economic survival for families.
  • Traditional customs: Some families reportedly marry off their daughters as soon as they develop breasts, or after they take part in a cultural initiation ceremony known as Bondo. In many areas, the practice of Female Genital Mutilation and Cutting (FGM/C) is also considered to be a marker of a girl’s readiness for marriage.
  • Adolescent pregnancy: Child marriage is often seen as the best solution if a girl becomes pregnant 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.
  • Armed conflict: During Sierra Leone’s civil war, 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.
  • Gender norms: Many girls have low self-esteem and limited opportunities, and therefore cannot comprehend the idea of not marrying.

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.

Sierra Leone co-sponsored the 2017 Human Rights Council resolution recognising the need to address child, early and forced marriage in humanitarian contexts, and the 2015 Human Rights Council resolution to end child, early and forced marriage, recognising that it is a violation of human rights.

Sierra Leone co-sponsored the 2013 and 2014 UN General Assembly resolutions on child, early and forced marriage, and the 2013 Human Rights Council resolution on child, early and forced marriage. In 2014, Sierra Leone 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.

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 2016 Sierra Leone launched the African Union Campaign to end child marriage in Africa.

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.

As a member of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), Sierra Leone has adopted the Strategic Framework for Strengthening National Child Protection Systems under which protecting children from marriage is a priority.

During its 2016 Universal Periodic Review, Sierra Leone agreed to examine recommendations to prohibit harmful practices including child marriage and FGM/C.

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.

What is the government doing to address this at the national level?

The government is currently implementing “Let Girls be Girls, Not Mothers”, a two year national strategy for the reduction of teenage pregnancy. A new strategy (2017-21) is currently being developed and is expected to include a component on addressing child marriage for the first time.

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.

As of 2018, the government is planning to develop a national action plan with comprehensive targets to address child marriage, together with parliamentarians, traditional and community leaders.

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 children at 16 to get married with parental consent.

Source

African Commission on Human and People’s Rights, African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, [website], 2018, (accessed February 2018)

African Commission on Human and People’s Rights, Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa, [website], 2018, (accessed February 2018)

African Union, Campaign to End Child Marriage in Africa: Call to Action, 2013, (accessed February 2018)

Bransky, Enoch and Long, Child Marriage in Sierra Leone and Guinea: Cultural Roots and Girl Centred Solutions, 2017, (accessed March 2018)

Burman, M. E., and McKay, S., Marginalization of girl mothers during reintegration from armed groups in Sierra Leone, 2007, (accessed March 2018)

Government of Sierra Leone, Advanced Report on Adaptation of the Goals in Sierra Leone, 2016, (accessed March 2018)

Government of Sierra Leone, Let Girls Be Girls, Not Mothers!, 2013, (accessed March 2018)

High Level Meeting on Ending Child Marriage, Ending child marriage in West and Central Africa: The Dakar call to action Outcome document of the high-level meeting on ending child marriage in West and Central Africa Dakar, Senegal – 23-25 October 2017, [website], 2017, (accessed March 2018)

Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark, Joint statement on child, early and forced marriage, HRC 27, Agenda Item 3, [website], 2014, (accessed April 2018)

Ministry of Health and Sanitation, Sierra Leone Demographic and Health Survey 2013, 2014, (accessed April 2018)

Save the Children, Every Last Girl, 2016, (accessed March 2018)

The Global Initiative for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Parallel Report to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, Sierra Leone 57th Session, 2014, (accessed March 2018)

UNDP, About Sierra Leone, [website], 2016,  (accessed March 2018)

UNFPA, Marrying Too Young: End Child Marriage, 2012, (accessed March 2018)

UNICEF-UNFPA, Global Programme to Accelerate Action to End Child Marriage, 2017, (accessed February 2018)

UN Child Rights Committee, Concluding observations on the combined third to fifth periodic reports of Sierra Leone, 2016, p.6, (accessed March 2018)

UN General Assembly, Report of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review: Sierra Leone, 2016, p.20, (accessed March 2018)

United Nations, Sustainable Development Knowledge Platform, [website], 2017, (accessed February 2018)

* 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)