Violence, abuse and exploitation still affect children in Sierra Leone, especially girls, and limits their ability to realize their full potential.
The situation for women and girls in Sierra Leone is among the worst in the world, and the inequalities and vulnerabilities are particularly acute for adolescent girls. The country was ranked 151 out of 159 in the 2015 Gender Inequality Index. One of the most pressing issues facing adolescent girls in Sierra Leone is child marriage.
Sierra Leone has the 15th highest prevalence of child marriage globally. According to the 2013 Demographic Health Survey (DHS), 12.5 per cent of women aged 20–24 years in Sierra Leone had married before the age of 15 years, and 38.9 per cent of women in the same age bracket had married before the age of 18 years. It is a practice that deprives girls of their childhood by limiting their opportunities to receive education and other basic services, while making them more vulnerable to risks like teenage pregnancy and overall deterioration of their physical and mental health.
Child marriage is inextricably linked to adolescent pregnancy. In 2013, 28 per cent of adolescents aged 15-19 years in Sierra Leone had begun childbearing, putting these girls at heightened risk of health and other social consequences related to pregnancy. 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, adolescent pregnancy remains a major contributor to maternal and child mortality, and to the cycle of ill-health and poverty. Data from 2015 show the country’s maternal mortality rate is at 1,360 deaths per 100,000 live births.
UNICEF and its partners are working together to prevent and respond to violence, abuse and exploitation of girls and boys. Special focus is given to the situation of adolescent girls, given the serious protection risks they face.
UNICEF contribution to the solution
Sierra Leone is one of 12 countries which are implementing the UNFPA-UNICEF Global Programme to Accelerate Action to End Child Marriage. Under this programme, activities on life skills, enrolment and attendance in formal and non-formal education, community dialogues, and the development of an enabling legal and policy framework, are being implemented through UNICEF’s NGO partners in selected districts.
This includes the provision of safe spaces, or girls’ clubs, which provide basic training on life skills (cognitive, interpersonal and social skills such as decision-making as well as literacy and numeracy), as well as distributing educational materials and sharing sexual reproductive health information, with the support of mentors. Social mobilization and community engagement of local leaders and authorities (Members of Parliament, Paramount Chiefs, Councilors and religious and traditional leaders) to accelerate and sustain efforts to ending child marriage through advocacy and prevention interventions has also been made.
Protective foundations have been laid in Sierra Leone to address harmful practices: in 2018 the National Strategy for the Reduction of Adolescent Pregnancy and Child Marriage (2018–2022) was launched, having been developed with the support of UNICEF. The strategy details the commitments of multi-sector stakeholders across six government ministries and guides the prevention of and response to adolescent pregnancy and child marriage.
UNICEF will continue working with the Government to finalize the strategies to guide implementation; and will focus efforts on engaging civil society organisations and key stakeholders at the community level to address harmful practices.