When Marion was 7 years old, she came home one day to a crowded apartment — it was filled with relatives, an imam, and a security guard. One of her aunts sat her down and presented her with a proposition.
“Marion, this man has come who has lots of money. He knows you don’t attend school and he has come to marry you. If you accept, he will buy you clothes and take you to school,” she was told.
Marion wasn’t sold on the idea.
“I want to go to school, but I don’t want to be married now,” she said to her aunt.
Several other adults tried convincing her to change her mind, but Marion did not change her position and was not forced to marry the man.
Under different circumstances, Marion would have been one of the estimated 40% of children in Sierra Leone who are married under the age of 18. According to UNICEF, the country ranks as the 18th country in the world with the highest prevalence of child marriage.
Child marriage is a complex issue not only bound by the law, but also religious, traditional, and social norms — and simply rejecting it outright is often not enough. Although Marion refused to marry, she was repeatedly sexually assaulted and physically abused by the man whose marriage proposition she rejected.
In Marion’s case, her caregivers sought to marry her off for economic reasons, as they were unable to pay for her schooling and required her to work from childhood to support the family. Poverty is often linked with child marriage.
“Some families marry their daughters off to receive dowry payments, reduce their perceived economic burden or offer them a better life,” the anti-child marriage nonprofit Girls Not Brides explains.
The United Nations launched its Global Program to Accelerate Action to End Child Marriage, through UNICEF and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), in 2016. The program aims to tackle child marriage in 12 of the most high-prevelence or high-burden countries, including Sierra Leone, Mozambique, Yemen, and Nepal.
In Sierra Leone, 3 in 10 girls aged 15 to 19 were pregnant or had previously given birth, according to government data.
Sonia Gilroy, a gender and rights specialist with UNFPA Sierra Leone, told Global Citizen how these statistics are linked to child marriage.
“We’ve found here that girls are getting pregnant and then getting married to deal with the shame or stigma. That’s why we have a joint strategy to end both,” Gilroy said.
According to the UN agency, factors which put girls at risk for child marriage include: being orphaned, not living with one’s parents (for example, staying with relatives or other caregivers), and living and attending school in a community that is not their own. UNFPA aims to get these girls to participate in their programming designed to curb child marriage in the country. One of their tactics includes the creation of safe spaces across the country.
These safe spaces are used to educate girls on the law so they can feel empowered to reject child marriage and report it when necessary. It also relays to them the importance of staying in school. Girls who have no education are three times as likely to marry by age 18, compared to girls with at least secondary education.
Gilroy says UNFPA maps out areas in the community that are safe spaces girls. They include schools, community centres, and even spots under trees — wherever the community deems is a safe space for girls to meet and speak openly.
Through the program, 340 mentors have been trained to operate 160 safe spaces across the country for girls. The program also connects girls to local services, such as guidance counselling in schools, which can provide further support.
Over 12,000 adolescent girls have participated in this program, according to UNFPA Sierra Leone, strengthening their leadership and decision-making skills and sexual and reproductive health knowledge.
The program also involves men who “always make the decisions,” Betty Alpha, the program coordinator with UNFPA, told Global Citizen.
She explained that males are typically the driving force behind early child marriage. To account for this, the program involves boys and men, religious and traditional leaders, and significant chiefs.
“We can’t work with the girls without engaging [men] … This supports community dialogue on the benefits of keeping girls in school, why men and boys need to support the girls to have better lives and make better decisions,” Alpha said.
Contradictory laws in Sierra Leone create grey areas when it comes to child marriage, according to Gilroy. She says while the Child’s Act stipulates that anyone below 18 years of age cannot be married, the Registration of Customary Marriages and Divorce Act indicates that a child 16 years of age can be married with parental consent.
In response, UNFPA is working with the Sierra Leonean government to pass a new act which would outlaw marriage for children under 18 years of age. Along with a team of lawyers and politicians, they drafted a bill to ban child marriage, which they anticipate will be reviewed in parliament and become law in 2020.
“Our efforts to end child marriage ensure that girls are empowered with life skills so that they can claim their sexual and reproductive rights and … achieve their full potential and contribute to the development of Sierra Leone,” Gilroy said.
The Global Program to Accelerate Action to End Child Marriage is supported by the Canadian government through its contributions to UNFPA, which amounted to $128 million in 2018. This spending aligns with Canada’s feminist foreign policy agenda, which centres women and girls.