July 13, 2024

Sierra Leone outlaws child marriage with new bill

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Sierra Leone officially banned child marriage on Tuesday with President Julius Maada Bio signing into law a bill to end the practice that remains widespread.

The African nation brought in the new law with much fanfare at a ceremony organized by First Lady Fatima Bio in the capital, Freetown.

Invited guests, including first ladies from Cape Verde and Namibia, watched as President Bio signed the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act into law.

Anybody now involved in the marriage of a girl aged under the age of 18 will be jailed for at least 15 years or fined around $ 4,000 (£3,200), or both.

Parents or those attending such marriage ceremonies could also face fines.

Advocates hope the new legislation will better protect girls in Sierra Leone.

University student Khadijatu Barrie, whose sister was married off at 14, told the BBC she welcomed the ban but wished it had come in to save her younger sibling.

“I really wish it had happened earlier. I could have at least saved my sister and my friends and other neighbors,” the 26-year-old gender studies undergraduate said.

Sierra Leone is a patriarchal society and it is common for a father to give his daughter’s hand in marriage forcibly.

Ms Barrie faced this prospect aged 10. She resisted it and fled the family home after her father disowned her.

She was lucky enough to find teachers who paid for her school fees and a sympathetic worker from the UN children’s agency who helped her out with accommodation.

But she says it is difficult for those who live in rural areas to buck tradition and every community will need to be informed about the new law for it to be effective.

“If everyone understands what’s there waiting for you in case you do it I’m sure this country will be a better one,” Ms Barrie said.

The ministry of health estimates that a third of girls are married off before they turn 18, accounting for the country’s high number of maternal deaths – among the highest in the world.

Those who face punishment under the new rules include the groom, the parents or guardians of the child bride, and even those who attend the wedding.

Mrs Bio, who has been at the forefront of campaigning against sexual abuse since her husband became president six years ago, wanted the signing of the bill to be a big occasion.

Since MPs passed the legislation a few weeks ago, it has not received much coverage locally.

At the ceremony, President Bio said that his “motivation and commitment to empowering women and girls is firmly rooted in my personal life journey”.

His eight-year-old daughter was amongst those who watched him sign the bill.

The president explained how he had lost his father at an early age and had been brought up by his mother and later his elder sister who “supported and encouraged me to pursue my dreams to the best of my ability”.

He acknowledged his wife’s commitment to championing women’s rights: “Together, we want to build an empowered Sierra Leone where women are given an even platform to reach their full potential. I have always believed that the future of Sierra Leone is female.”

Human rights groups reacted favorably to the law, calling it a watershed moment.

On their X page, the US Bureau of African Affairs welcomed the passage of the bill saying the “significant milestone not only protects girls but promotes robust human rights protections”.

West and Central Africa has the highest prevalence of child marriage in the world and is home to nearly 60 million child brides, according to the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF.

A 21-year-old Sierra Leonean former child bride, who requested anonymity, told Reuters that she was forced into marriage at the age of 14 and was considering going to court since the new law would allow her to file for an annulment.

The legislation should “break the cycle of early marriage and its devastating consequences,” said Human Rights Watch researcher Betty Kabari. “It also sets a pathway forward for other African nations, such as Tanzania and Zambia, to revoke laws that permit child marriage.”

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