First Lady Fatima Bio (right), watching her husband holding the signed legislation, backs Sierra Leone's We Are Equal Campaign
First Lady Fatima Bio (right), watching her husband holding the signed legislation, backs Sierra Leone's We Are Equal Campaign
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Sierra Leone ban child marriage, impose 15-year imprisonment for violators, including parents, groom and wedding guests

This week, Sierra Leone made history when the president signed into law the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act 2024. 

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For a country with one of the highest rates of child marriage, teenage pregnancy and maternal mortality in the world, it is a crucial step forward, and a hard-won achievement for campaigners in west Africa.

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

Sierra Leone has 800,000 child brides – and of those more than half were married before the age of 15, so there is no question that this is groundbreaking legislation. 

It repeals previous ambiguous laws to explicitly name child marriage as illegal and underscores a clear commitment to girls’ rights. 

The legislation also establishes mechanisms for enforcement, ensuring that perpetrators – including the husband and those who enable the marriage such as parents and the person officiating – are held accountable by up to 15 years’ imprisonment, with survivors now able to seek justice and compensation.

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 60-year-old 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.”

President Julius Maada Bio's daughter was at the signing ceremony

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

She said the bill was a "personal battle" as she was almost a victim of child marriage.

The marriage didn't go through because the civil war broke out but the experience has remained with her.

She said that child marriage was like "taking away a child's dream and destroy them even before they knew who they are".

"Even when I am at the position I am now, I still feel that pain. I still hate my immediate family for trying to do that," she said.

Mrs Bio added that Sierra Leone suffers from a high birth mortality rate because many of those having children are still teenagers.
"Most of these girls, their body is not ready," she said.

Child marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM) are deeply interwoven, yet an amended Child Rights Act of 2024, laid out to protect girls from all forms of violence, including FGM, is still awaiting parliamentary approval. Girls’ rights campaigners and feminist activists are concerned about the move to separate these fundamental human rights issues from each other.

The more the child rights bill is stalled, the more it reveals itself as a dilution tactic of pushing against ending FGM – and the more sinister the interplay becomes between girls’ and young women’s rights and the anti-rights agenda.

The rhetoric of those who refuse to criminalise FGM simply continues to harden conservative patriarchal norms and underpin far-right ideologies, wrapped in the cloak of tradition. With FGM seen as the precursor to marriage, the threat of child marriage will continue, despite the new law.

The devastating impact of FGM on girls’ and women’s psychological and physical health has been long identified internationally as a human rights violation.

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In April, the UN special rapporteur on violence against women and girls named it as “one of the most pernicious forms of violence committed”, and yet current estimates show at least 230 million women and girls alive today have been subjected to FGM, and in Sierra Leone, it affects 83% of girls and women.

Despite decades of campaigning by anti-FGM activists, it remains prevalent – shielded in the belief that to become a woman and be fit for marriage, girls must be cut, must be subordinate, their bodies violated and conditioned that this is the norm.

The handful of high-profile cases in Sierra Leone, including the most recent concerning the death of three girls, investigated by police in January, would have been ignored were it not for campaigners agitating and pushing it into international focus and advocating, “yes to culture, no to the harmful practice of cutting”.

A Bloodless Rite, a film made by Purposeful and activists, powerfully illustrates feminist solidarity and possibility of sacred female spaces.

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Like child marriage, FGM is bound up with, and inseparable from, patriarchal oppression. It is merely one manifestation of sexual violence against girls, and it exists within a broader context of cultural, structural, social, political and economic violence against women and girls.

At its heart, the violence of FGM is born out of the same profound patriarchy that justifies the marriage of children.

A unified legal stance should be an imperative. Yet within this new law, that sits alongside celebrated policy milestones such as the Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment Act 2023, and progressive education policies, the violence of FGM remains entrenched, normalised, and seemingly protected in the highest corridors of power.

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