How to stop child marriage? Punishing the husband, parents, and wedding guests.

The president of the tiny West African nation of Sierra Leone signed a law on Tuesday banning child marriages for those under 18 and imposing heavy fines on adult spouses, a victory for activists who have fought for years to eradicate the widespread practice.

Experts say the new law goes further than many similar laws in Africa, punishing not only husbands but also those who enable marriages, including parents, officiants and even wedding guests.

In Sierra Leone, approximately 800,000 girls under the age of 18 are married. UNICEF reported About one-third of girls in the country were married in 2020. Half were married by age 15. About 4% of boys were married by age 18, according to Human Rights Watch.

Under the new law, child marriage couples can seek financial compensation and also have a path out of the marriage by filing for annulment.

Betty Kabali, a researcher at Human Rights Watch who focuses on women’s rights and sexual health in Africa, praised the approach of punishing those who facilitate marriage, saying, “To me, the most powerful thing about it is that it highlights that children don’t marry in a vacuum.”

Each year, more than 12 million girls under the age of 18 are married, According to the United NationsMore than 650 million girls and women were married as children.

South Asia has the highest number of child marriages, about 290 million, accounting for 45 percent of the world total. Continue That’s about 127 million people, or 20 percent.

be Child Marriage Map According to a study managed by Girls Not Brides, an international organization that works to end the practice, 16 of the 20 countries with the highest rates are in Africa.

In a report released this year, Equality Now A study of 20 African countries found that only a few have implemented total bans, and many do not properly enforce them.

Child marriage often leads to girls dropping out of school, and early pregnancy can cause long-term injury and trauma.

Sierra Leone The most dangerous place Childbirth is even more dangerous for teenagers.

“They are being forced to become adults before they are adults,” said Kadijatu Barry, 26, a student and program coordinator for organizations such as Strong Girls Evolution, a network for women in Sierra Leone.

Barry said her family pressured her to marry from the age of 10, and her father disowned her when she refused at 15. She feared she would have to drop out of school.

“All of this is leading to lower levels of education for women,” she said.

Many face additional complications from another cultural practice widespread in the country – female genital mutilation, which is considered a human rights violation. By the World Health OrganizationIn Sierra Leone, around 61 percent of girls aged 15 to 19 have undergone female genital mutilation, which can cause serious problems during childbirth.

Under the new law, which took effect on Tuesday, anyone caught marrying a child could face 15 years in prison or a fine of more than $5,000 – stiff penalties in a country where per capita gross domestic product growth is expected to be about $433 in 2023. According to World Bank data.

This law doesn’t just apply to marriage: it also prohibits adults from living with and having sexual relations with children.

Parents are not even allowed to consent to their children’s marriages. Officiants cannot officiate the ceremony. Guests cannot attend the ceremony. In fact, anyone who “aids and abets” a marriage can be sentenced to 10 years in prison or fined about $2,500, or both.

The ban is in line with Sierra Leone’s broader efforts to advance girls’ rights by keeping them in school and protecting them from genital mutilation.

President Julius Maada Bio 22 percent of the national budget He emphasized education and brought more women into government, and he and his wife, Fatima Bio, pushed for an end to child marriage.

“I have always believed that the future of Sierra Leone lies with women,” Bio posted. On social media After signing the law with his young daughter by his side.

Nerida Ntambuli, Africa Director at Girls Not Brides, said:

“We want to see Sierra Leone as a continental leader that can influence other countries.”

Ntambuli said other countries have pushed the practice underground by criminalising child marriage, which has led communities to band together and made it even less likely that girls would be protected from the practice.

For the law to be truly effective, researchers and experts say Sierra Leonean authorities will need to build lasting relationships with local communities, especially in rural areas where child marriage is more common.

That means eliminating the poverty that leads families to marry off their daughters at an early age. It also means expanding efforts to educate communities about sexual and reproductive health.

Many women and girls will still have to go against their neighbours, husbands and families to refuse marriages, petition to end marriages or seek compensation.

Barry was ostracized when she refused her family’s pressure. “The whole family came together against me,” she says. “I became the worst person they could be.”

She said she tried to stop her sister from getting married when she was 14, but she had heard people in the community vilifying Mr Barry, and that her sister, who had a talent for drawing, wanted to be a fashion designer.

“I couldn’t save her,” Barry said. “I still cry about it.”

Joseph Johnson Contributed report.

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