8 March 2024 - Sierra Leone

Cousins campaigning against child marriage hope village laws go national in Sierra Leone

Cousins Kpemeh*, 18 and Kuji*, 19 walk home hand in hand in Kailahun, Sierra Leone

Cousins Kpemeh*, 18 and Kuji*, 19 walk home hand in hand in Kailahun, Sierra Leone. More content available here

FREETOWN, 8 March 2024 – When 19-year-old Kuji* managed to stop her cousin Kpemeh’s* marriage at age 15 and she returned to school, the girls hoped it would set an example for others in their village in rural eastern Sierra Leone. Now it seems their campaigning could help girls nationwide. 

Kpemeh* was only 12 when a man expressed interest in marrying her. Her parents, whose farming just covers the family’s immediate needs, felt financial pressure and agreed to the marriage. But Kpemeh* was adamantly opposed to such a union. She knew she was not ready, and her education was too important to her.  

Kpemeh* resisted the marriage for three years after which her parents stopped paying her school fees and she had to drop out.  

While visiting relatives in a nearby village, Kpemeh*’s cousin Kuji* heard about her situation. Kuji* is an early child marriage champion with Save the Children and encouraged her cousin to stand up for her rights and for her education. Kuji* also reported the case to the village chief, who fined Kpemeh*’s parents and prevented the marriage.  

While Kpemeh* escaped early marriage, many girls in Sierra Leone are not so fortunate. About one third of girls in Sierra Leone are married before the age of 18, and another one third give birth before age 19, according to a report by the Ministry of Health. Sierra Leone has one of the highest child marriage, early pregnancy, and maternal mortality rates in the world, with 443 mothers dying in every 100,000 live births.  Adolescent mothers are at particular risk of birth and pregnancy complications. 

Both now trained as Save the Children champions,  Kpemeh* and Kuji* have jointly campaigned against child marriage, and last year all the chiefs in Kailahun district in eastern Sierra Leone unanimously agreed to criminalise child marriage, making it punishable with fines and other penalties. Save the Children also set up a toll-free phone number to report any suspected cases of child marriage.  

Kpemeh* said: I will say to [people in the community] that there is this project that I am part of, I am here to advise you about early child marriage. Those of us who are under 18 should steer clear of early marriage. Whenever I share this message, people listen and abandon such practices.” 

An historic bill based on the village’s bylaws will soon be introduced to the Sierra Leone parliament which, if passed, would criminalise child marriage, including promoting, attending, or abetting one. The bill would also nullify any existing law that supports child marriage. 

Another trained campaigner, Ibrahim*, 23, recalled attitudes before the Save the Children-led training on child marriage.  

Ibrahim said: “Early marriage was happening, but we saw it as something good because we didn't know. It's so frequent. A soon as we see a friend get married, then someone would say I am going to get married. Or if a girl brags about her pregnancy, her friend would also say I will get pregnant too. 

“But after being explained the negative effects, we realised it’s not good… so, we spoke to our friends, so they can stop doing it [early marriage]. It’s child abuse… and they should stop it.” 

Ibrahim started visiting children who were not attending school and were susceptible to child marriage. By listening to children and families without judgment, and by stressing the importance of education, Ibrahim has seen a huge increase in school attendance in his village and the exam pass rate jumped to 95% from 60-70%. 

Paramount Chief Henry H. Baion III said: 

“Paramount Chiefs, including me, in this chiefdom were guilty of supporting child marriage [before]. When the programme came, I was sceptical about the concept and supported reluctantly. As I got to understand what it was about, I realised it is something good for our community and children.” 

Communities, like those in Kailahun, are leading the charge against child marriage. At the national level, Save the Children has worked with First Lady Fatima Maada Bio, the Ministry of Gender and Children’s Affairs, and other organisations to end child marriage in the country.  

Save the Children is calling for the government of Sierra Leone to see this bill become law and protect the future of children.  

 Patrick Analo, Save the Children Sierra Leone Country Director said: 

“Child marriage effectively stops a girl’s childhood. It not only violates her rights, but also puts her life at risk. Girls who are married young are less likely to continue with their education, leading to lifelong economic impacts for them, their families, and communities. We are encouraged by the work done in the community level in Kailahun and call for these local bylaws to be made nationwide.” 

Save the Children has been working in Sierra Leone since 1999, initially focusing on family reunification during the war. Now the organisation’s primary areas of focus are children’s rights and protection, education, and health. 


For further enquiries please contact:

Anna Rauhanen anna.rauhanen@savethechildren.org

Kunle Olawoyin Kunle.Olawoyin@savethechildren.org

Our media out of hours (BST) contact is media@savethechildren.org.uk / +44(0)7831 650409

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