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African nation bans child marriage

Sierra Leone’s government has passed a law introducing a 15-year minimum prison sentence for offenders

Sierra Leonean President Julius Maada Bio has signed legislation banning child marriage in the West African country, where one-third of girls marry before they turn 18.

Dignitaries, including first ladies from Cape Verde and Namibia, witnessed the signing ceremony of the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act 2024 on Tuesday in the capital, Freetown. It came almost two weeks after lawmakers passed the measure, which activists have praised as a “historic” step.

“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 Bio said in a statement.

Under the law, any man involved in the marriage of a girl under the age of 18 will face a minimum of 15 years in prison, a $4,000 fine, or both. It also includes provisions to protect the rights of victims and ensure that affected minors have access to education and support services.

According to the non-profit Girls Not Brides, approximately 30% of Sierra Leonean girls marry before the age of 18. Approximately 800,000 of the country’s eight million people are child brides, with half marrying before turning 15, according to the UN children’s agency UNICEF.

Rights groups have linked the situation to widespread poverty, as families end up marrying off their daughters to improve their financial standing or pay off debts. The Sierra Leonean health ministry has also blamed child marriage for the rising maternal mortality rate.

The African nation had already set the minimum legal marriage age at 18 under the Child Rights Act of 2007. However, this was contradicted by the Customary Marriage and Divorce Act of 2009, which allows underage children to be married with parental consent.

Fatou Gueye Ndir, senior regional advocacy officer for Girls Not Brides, welcomed the new law as a “vital step forward” in addressing forced marriages in Sierra Leone and allowing girls to “live happily, safely, and reach their full potential.”

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Human Rights Watch researcher Betty Kabari said the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act 2024 sets a “pathway forward for other African nations, such as Tanzania and Zambia, to revoke laws that permit child marriage and ensure girls can complete primary and secondary education.”

According to UNICEF, West and Central Africa have the world’s highest child marriage rates, with nearly 60 million child brides.

In April, authorities in Ghana said they had to intervene to protect a young girl who had been married off to a 63-year-old traditional priest, despite the country’s minimum age for marriage being 18.

July 03, 2024 at 07:25PM

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