20 July 2023 - Rwanda, Sierra Leone

Experiences of child and early forced marriage programming in Sierra Leone

 Aisha*, fifteen, holds the hand of her daughter Rayan*, two.

Dr Modupe Taiwo, Save the Children’s Programme Director for the Global Affairs Canada funded Project on reducing and responding to child and early forced marriage and union titled ‘My Body. My Decision. My Rights.’ was a panellist among other global leaders at this year’s 2023 Women Deliver Conference (WD2023) in Kigali, Rwanda.

Happening every three years, the Women Deliver conference is the largest conference on gender equality globally.  It provides an opportunity for global leaders, activists, practitioners, donors and influencers to discuss issues of gender inequality and progress made to date.

Addressing early child and forced marriage and sexuality in Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone has a population of 8.4 million and is ranked 18th in the world for child and early forced marriage and union. With 30% of girls getting married before the age of 18 years old and 9% before 15 years old. Like elsewhere, child and early forced marriage and union is driven by gender inequality, lack of Adolescent Sexual and Reproductive Health (ASHR) rights (particularly for girls), and poverty. Child and early forced marriage and union is the key driver of adolescent pregnancy (and vice versa), high maternal mortality and low literacy rates, and sexual and gender-based violence against women and girls in Sierra Leone.

These shocking statistics have been the crux of Save the Children’s ambition to sustain their efforts and develop new initiatives to protect girls’ rights and contribute to their empowerment.

Aligned with the Feminist International Assistance Policy of the Government of Canada, the My Body. My Decision. My Rights project empowered adolescent girls to use their voices to engage community leaders and decision-makers to work towards preventing child and early forced marriage and union. They also campaigned for greater acceptance of gender equality and the assertion of sexual and reproductive health and rights.

Results and challenges

Over three years of implementation between February 2020 and September 2023, the project worked with unmarried and married adolescent girls who learnt from modules in gender equality, life skills, sexual and reproductive health, financial literacy and livelihoods, alongside boys and male partners. These actions contributed to the increased empowerment of girls, including married girls. Over 80% showed high self-esteem and self-efficacy skills while also speaking out against child marriage in public. They also showed a 20% reduction in child and early forced marriage and union in the project districts.   

The project engaged with caregivers of adolescent girls, religious and traditional community leaders and local women and girls groups to advocate for the prevention of child and early forced marriage and union and strengthen the sexual & reproductive health & rights of adolescent girls.

In addition, through policy advocacy and capacity strengthening for policymakers, there has been increased enforcement of the Radical Inclusion Policy of 2021. This has allowed pregnant girls and adolescent mothers to go to school and has enhanced the justice system for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence resulting in the timely prosecution of perpetrators.

It has also contributed to the Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment Act 2022 which calls for a 30% female quota in politics and economic spaces. Today, Sierra Leone recorded over 30% of female representation in elected and appointed positions following the June 2023 elections. This was the first time achieving gender parity in-country leadership. Community-level byelaws have been developed in Kailahun – one of the project districts to enforce actions against child and early forced marriage and union, gender-based violence and other harmful practices, with appropriate sanctions for perpetrators.

Despite these successes, challenges remain. Sierra Leone is a country steeped in discriminatory traditions, some of which are harmful to girls like the Bondo society”. This is an initiation rite for female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM) undergone by over 80% of the women in Sierra Leone as a rite of passage into adulthood which is also linked to child and early forced marriage and union. The practice of FGM/C continues to be so widespread as it is seen to be ‘preparing’ girls for marriage and end up getting pregnant before the age of 18. They then often find themselves living in poverty and isolation in customary unions commonly referred to as “tap to me”.  

Delivering transformational programmes for and with women and girls may be an uphill battle but one that is worthwhile. In a world full of obstacles, there is a need for all hands-on deck. Girls, women, global leaders, thinkers and donors must work together to improve the lives of women and girls for national and global change.

In the WD2023 and during this panel discussion, emerging messages called for collective actions, engagement of new voices, including young feminists for more engagement in gender equality spaces as well as inclusive multi-year flexible investment in gender equality, girls and women health, rights and wellbeing.

About the side event:

Dr Taiwo was invited to speak on the panel “Preventing Child, Early and Forced Marriage and Union in the face of a Polycrisis, including through Comprehensive Sexuality Education”. Dr Taiwo spoke alongside Honourable Minister Harjit Sajjan (Minister for International Development- Government of Canada), H.E Mary Robinson (Chair- The Elders), H.E. Graca Machel (Co-founder- The Elders), Chido Cleo Mpemba (Special Envoy Youth African Union), Rania Dagash-Kamara (Deputy Regional Director UNICEF, East and Southern Africa), and Dr Alvaro Bermejo (Director General International Planned Parenthood Federation). The panel shared promising practices and lessons learned from the project and the need for urgent action in an environment where conflict and climate change further impact the lives of women and girls.

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