Sierra Leone’s First Lady Fatima Bio has declared child marriage as her number one development priority.Mrs Bio was quoted on Monday saying she will seek to end child marriage alongside rape and other gender based violence issues in the country during her term as First Lady of the country. She was speaking after the unveiling of her development plans last week to Sierra Leone’s development partners.
Although the First Lady’s office is not a constitutionally mandated one, it has been used to complement the government’s efforts by soliciting supports from local and international donors.
Mrs Bio said for the last 20 years there had been a lot of emphasis on cancer, HIV/AIDS and other illnesses affecting women, and that she had chosen to focus on child marriage because of its widespread ramifications.
Sierra Leone is ranked among countries with highest number of child marriage, which is one of the factors identified as fueling teenage pregnancy and maternal mortality. And the country has the highest rate of maternal mortality.
“We have to reduce child marriage and teenage pregnancy in this country, and that’s my first priority – ending sexual and gender based violence,” Mrs Bio declared.
“For the last 20 years we have screamed about cancer, we’ve screamed about HIV AIDS, we’ve screamed about fistula. We should also look at the prevention of child trafficking and prostitution,” she added.
She called on Sierra Leone’s international partners for support to achieve her target.
Mrs Bio also appealed for support to establish a hospital for cancer treatment and other diseases affecting particularly women in the country.
A UNICEF report in October last year indicates that Sierra Leone has a child marriage rate of 39 percent. This means so many girls get married before their 18th birthday. The country’s child marriage rate has seen a constant decline, from 56 percent in 2006 to 48 percent in 2008. This gain has been attributed to intensified campaign.
But UNICEF, in that report, warned that if progress was not accelerated ending child marriage in West and Central Africa would take more than 100 years to achieve. The report, titled ‘achieving a future without child marriage: Focus on West and Central Africa”, revealed that due to the rapid population growth and high prevalence of child marriage, even if the current decline rate was doubled, it would not be enough to reduce the annual number of girls who get married young.
In Sierra Leone the phenomenon is fueled by religious beliefs, which makes it a thorny issue for politicians. It’s very common among Muslims, who constitute majority of the population.
UNFPA also cited poverty, lack of education and geographical area as other factors of child marriage in Sierra Leone.
Child marriage has led to many girls dropping out of school.
Sierra Leone’s Child Rights Act, passed in 2012, prohibits marriage under the age of 18, regardless of whether the marriage is carried out under formal, customary or religious laws.
However, a 2007 Customary Marriage Act also allows parents or local government officials to consent to a child’s marriage. This is what communities that support child marriage have capitalized on, and it is the contradiction child rights activists say must be addressed.
Reports indicate that the Law Reform Commission is currently reviewing the two laws with a view of harmonizing them.