UNICEF is committed to doing all it can to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), in partnership with governments, civil society, business, academia and the United Nations family – and especially children and young people.
On 18 September 2017, the Government of Zambia, the Government of Canada, UNICEF, UNFPA and UN Women convened a United Nations General Assembly High Level side event to advocate for accelerating the Common African Position (CAP) on Ending Child Marriage. The African States adopted the CAP in June 2014 to contribute to Sustainable Development Goal 5.3 on the elimination of all harmful practices, such as child, early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation.
At the event, Heads of State – together with United Nations, civil society and donor organizations – recommitted to accelerating the implementation of the CAP on ending child marriage, including providing financial and technical support. These discussions are essential to draw support to protecting the rights of girls to choose and shape their own futures and not be forced into marriage against their wills.
Alice Ngaujah*, 16-years-old stands with her baby outside a girls’ centre, in the town of Koidu, eastern Sierra Leone. Last year her parents threw her out of their home when they found out she was pregnant.
In Sierra Leone, teenage pregnancy and child marriage are common: data from 2015 show that nearly 40 per cent of girls are married before their 18th birthday. Learn how community action and safe spaces are helping 16-year-old Alice build a better future for herself and her baby.
By Harriet Mason
KOIDU, Sierra Leone, 19 September 2017 – Last year, the course of 16-year-old Alice Ngaujah’s* life changed forever when she discovered she was pregnant. Disowned by her parents, she was quickly thrown into adulthood.
“When my family found out that I was pregnant, they sent me to live with the family of the boy who got me pregnant. There was no meeting or arrangement, I was just sent off. I lived with them until I gave birth,” says Alice.
While staying with her child’s father, she was expected to do all sorts of chores – from sweeping, cooking, and laundry to working on the farm and gathering firewood. This was all in addition to looking after her baby, usually by herself.
She was forced to drop out of school, and she began to lose hope for her future.
Gladys Nnabuihe Umaoma, 11, sits in a meeting of a girls’ club at a safe space in Koidu. “I am working harder in school because I know it is important for me to be educated to be able to improve my life and my family in the future. There is an appropriate time for everything, including sex,” she says. “I want to be a journalist after I finish school, because I like to know and talk about issues around me.”
Child marriage and teenage pregnancy in Sierra Leone
In Sierra Leone, teenage pregnancy and child marriage are common. According to the country’s 2013 Demographic and Health Survey, 13 per cent of girls are married by their 15th birthday and 39 per cent of girls before their 18th birthday. Globally, more than 700 million women alive today were married as children.
Teenage pregnancy reduces a girl’s chances in life, often interfering with schooling, limiting opportunities, and placing girls at increased risk of child marriage, HIV infections and domestic violence.
According to the World Health Organization, teenage pregnancy is also a leading cause of death for mothers in Sierra Leone. Data from 2015 show the country’s maternal mortality rate is at 1,360 deaths per 100,000 live births.
“I had a lot of problems when I was pregnant,” said Alice. “I was admitted for over a month and even had to be given blood. Giving birth to this child was hard, but I thank God that we both survived.”
A group of girls, including Alice, attends a session at a safe space in the town of Koidu. They are members of a girls’ club, which works to end child marriage and reduce teenage pregnancy.
Safe spaces for teenage girls
UNICEF is supporting partners to address the issue of teenage pregnancy in Sierra Leone by helping to provide safe spaces for adolescent girls to find out more about the choices they face. The Council of Churches in Sierra Leone, one of UNICEF’s partners, has set up 100 safe spaces to date, serving 3,000 adolescent girls in communities with a high prevalence of child marriage and teenage pregnancy.
Each safe space serves about 30 girls between the ages of 10 and 19, and offers them an opportunity to improve their skills and self-esteem, meet friends and mentors, learn about the services they can access in their communities, and seek help with any sexual gender based violence and domestic violence issues they or their friends might face.
Alice recently joined a girls’ group at a safe space at the local church centre in the town of Koidu. She regularly meets girls her age to discuss the pitfalls that can undermine their young lives – getting pregnant, child marriage, sexual gender-based violence and dropping out of school, among others.
“I joined the club because I want to change the present story of my life and get educated so that I can have a better future,” says Alice.
Kadiatu Conteh*, 17 and mother of a 14 month-old boy, reads her notes outside her home in the town of Mile 91, Tonkolili district, Sierra Leone. “I heard about the safe space from my teacher in school," she says. "She has being counselling us to not make the same mistake again. She advises us who are sexually active to use contraceptives and those who are not sexually active to abstain."
Improving access to education for girls
In addition to the psychosocial support provided through the initiative, UNICEF also supports girls who have difficulties meeting their education expenses through the Girls’ Access to Education (GATE) project, funded by UK aid. The support includes help with school fees and supplies like books and uniforms.
“Adolescent girls should be in school working towards their dreams for the future, not married and raising families,” said Dr Hamid El-Bashir, UNICEF Representative in Sierra Leone. “This is why we are working closely with partners and communities to ensure that girls get every opportunity to stay in school and complete their education.”
Working with men, women, girls and boys, religious congregations and Christian, Muslim and traditional leaders has also been a critical to UNICEF’s efforts to end child marriage. They have a key role in speaking out against the harmful practice and changing community attitudes to embrace positive social norms.
In fact, action from community members is how Alice’s life began to get back on track. With the help of local authorities, including paramount chiefs and a pastor at a local church, the mentors of the safe space intervened in her situation. Together, they talked to the family of the boy, got her out of the house, and she is now under the care of an aunt. They are also working to see that she returns to school in the next academic year.
Alice expresses renewed hope for the future: “I feel comfortable among my peers,” she says. “Now I have a new zeal to go back to school and achieve my dream of becoming a nurse.”
*name has been changed
The UNFPA-UNICEF Global Programme to Accelerate Action to End Child Marriage is turning commitment into tangible action for children. It promotes the right of girls to delay marriage, addressing the conditions that keep the practice in place, and caring for girls already in union. The programme is generously funded by the Governments of Canada, Italy, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the European Union.