“Tap to Me” becomes a common trend for child marriage in Sierra Leone
Adolescent child mother and common law wife in slum community in Freetown. Photo: Save the Children
On Thursday 29th July, 2021, Save the Children through the Child Early Forced Marriage project, shared findings from studies conducted on child marriage in Sierra Leone. These studies not only confirmed what we already know about child marriage and teenage pregnancy, but further explored the drivers of this harmful practice that ranks Sierra Leone the 18th in the world for child marriage practice.
Attended by key stakeholders from the Ministries of Justice, Health, Gender and Children’s Affairs, alongside adolescents, donors, civil society organizations, international development partners, Canadian Consular and media houses, this meeting created a platform for information sharing and dialogue around a topic that has gained national and global interest.
In a world where there is growing global recognition and social action against inequality and exclusion, it is not surprising that there is interest and genuine concern over violations of children’s rights, particularly girls; as we see the economic, social and health benefits of inclusion and gender equality.
The obvious is not so obvious
According to the report; My Body, My Decision, My Rights: Reducing child early forced marriage in Sierra Leone; 33.1 percent of families in Sierra Leone have one daughter that is married below the age of 18 years. There is at least 1 pregnant adolescent or child mother in every 2 households and; fathers are decision makers on child marriage, largely influenced by teenage pregnancy.
For protection experts in Sierra Leone, these findings are ‘obvious’ following numerous child marriage and teenage pregnancy studies conducted over the years. What is not so obvious are findings that show “Tap to Me,” where a girl moves in with the family of the man or boy responsible for her pregnancy until she gives birth is common place, “sidetracking” the constitutional age of marriage of 18 years. If the girl continues to live under this informal arrangement for up to five years, she becomes a ‘wife’. There ends her education, her right to decision making and opportunities for independence and economic empowerment.
The report showed that only 10-20 percent of already married adolescent girls remained in school after giving birth, highlighting a large proportion of girls who will lose out in life and contribute to the poor education, health and gender inequality statistics that the government is striving hard to improve as a part of their national development agenda.
Making polices a reality
Over the past four years, there has been an influx of policies in health, education and protection. Among them lie the Amended Sexual Offences Act of 2019, which makes provision for the increase of the maximum penalty for rape and sexual penetration of a child from fifteen years to life imprisonment; the National Policy on Radical Inclusion in Schools 2021, described by Minister of Basic and Senior Secondary Education as the intentional inclusion of persons directly or indirectly excluded (from education) due to actions or inactions by individuals, society or institutions; and more recently the approval of the Gender Empowerment Bill 2021 which calls for improving access to finance for women and gender mainstreaming and budgeting across all sectors.
These polices and laws show government commitment to change the narrative for the most vulnerable however “it is not just about policies and laws, it is about putting accountability systems in place.” Says Modupe Taiwo, Director of the Child Early Forced Marriage project.
Talking about Tap to me being common place she said that “Many people agree that they know the law and know about the implications...the issue is about the pregnant girl who is seen as one less mouth to feed…if the family is poor she is moved to the family of the man. Once she is in the man’s house for five years she is informally married… it is difficult to enforce the national law as it no longer applies.”
The changes we want to see for girls in Sierra Leone
Recognizing the challenge in addressing informal structures of child marriage, how can we achieve the changes we want to see for girls in Sierra Leone? The project is using a holistic approach to tackle the problem. Starting with engagement of government actors and institutions through advocacy; creating allies with stakeholders who can bring solutions to the table using their influence in communities like religious and traditional leaders and societal heads like ‘’sowes’’, responsible for initiating girls into Bondo (a rite of passage for girls which includes FGM to prepare girls for marriage). The project also works with women and girls’ groups, religious and traditional leaders and gender champions who are given knowledge to change their own attitudes and influence wider community behavior change, while adolescent girls and boys are also given economic empowerment through Village Savings and Loan schemes.
There is need to strengthen laws and mechanisms. Communities are now reporting cases which shows that they are comfortable to report. This is a start in addressing harmful practices including child marriage and gender-based violations and other forms of abuses of human rights
To round off what we all know to be the reality of child marriage, Modupe reminds us that “Behavior change is the most difficult thing and traditional practices are difficult to break.”
In terms of empowerment, thereis need for sexuality education for parents, community stakeholders and girls. With sex being a forbidden subject of discussion, parents are unable to give girls the right advice they need to make safe and informed choices about sex, thus exposing them to unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections.
Girls have the right to be able to be make decisions about their body and their rights. The changes that we need to see can only happen when they are able to redefine their future regardless of their social and economic status in society.