Sierra Leone brings in new law banning child marriage

Sierra Leone brings in new law banning child marriage

Sierra Leone officially banned child marriages with president Julius Maada Bio signing into law a bill that aimed at ending the practice in a major win for children’s rights.

The law, passed by parliament, criminalises the marriage of girls under the age of 18 and prescribes jail term of up to 15 years for offenders and a fine of around $4,000 (£3200). Parents or those attending such marriage ceremonies could also face fines.

"Freedom has come for our women," Mr Bio said in the capital Freetown, during a ceremony organised by first lady Fatima Bio.

It is a "beacon of hope in Africa where women have boundless opportunities to be and determine their own future and inspire the world,” the president said, reported AFP.

Advocates hope the new legislation will better protect girls in Sierra Leone, around a third of whom are married underage, increasing the maternal death rate due to the physical risks they face from pregnancy, according to the health ministry.

Khadijatu Barrie, a university student, who welcomed the ban lamented the delay in bringing in the bill that could have prevented her younger sibling from being married off at 14.

“I really wish it had happened earlier,” Ms Barrie, 26, told BBC News. “I could have at least saved my sister and my friends and other neighbours.”

She was faced with a similar fate at the age of 10, the gender studies student told the British However, she resisted and fled from the house before finding teachers and sympathetic activists willing to fund her education.

The US Bureau of African Affairs welcomed the passage of the bill as a "significant milestone (that) 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 UN 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."

Additional reporting by agencies