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Sierra Leone Enacts Law Banning Child Marriage

IN a significant move towards gender equality, Sierra Leone has enacted a new law banning child marriage. The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act was signed into law by President Julius Maada Bio during a celebratory ceremony in the capital, Freetown, organised by First Lady Fatima Bio. The event was attended by prominent guests, including the first ladies of Cape Verde and Namibia.

Under the new law, anyone involved in the marriage of a girl under 18 will face a minimum of 15 years in prison or a fine of approximately $4,000 (£3,200), or both. This includes the groom, the parents or guardians of the child bride, and even attendees of the wedding.

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University student Khadijatu Barrie, whose sister was married off at 14, expressed relief at the law’s enactment but wished it had come sooner. ‘I really wish it had happened earlier. I could have at least saved my sister and my friends and other neighbours,’ the 26-year-old gender studies undergraduate told the BBC.

In Sierra Leone’s patriarchal society, it is common for fathers to forcibly marry off their daughters. Barrie herself faced this prospect at age 10 but resisted and fled after her father disowned her. She found support from teachers who paid her school fees and a UN children’s agency worker who helped with accommodation. However, she emphasised that rural communities 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,’ Barrie said.

The Ministry of Health estimates that one-third of girls in Sierra Leone are married before they turn 18, contributing to the country’s high maternal death rate, one of the highest in the world. The new law aims to address this issue by imposing strict penalties on those who engage in child marriage.

First Lady Fatima Bio, who has been a leading advocate against sexual abuse since her husband took office six years ago, ensured the signing of the bill was a major event. President Bio, whose personal experiences have shaped his commitment to empowering women and girls, spoke passionately at the ceremony. His eight-year-old daughter was among those who witnessed the historic signing.

‘My motivation and commitment to empowering women and girls is firmly rooted in my personal life journey,’ President Bio said. He recounted losing his father at an early age and being raised by his mother and elder sister, who encouraged him to pursue his dreams. ‘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,’ he added, acknowledging his wife’s dedication to championing women’s rights.

Rights activists have hailed the new law as a watershed moment for Sierra Leone. The US Bureau of African Affairs lauded the bill on their social media platform, calling it a ‘significant milestone’ that not only protects girls but also promotes robust human rights protections.

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