Isata Dabeni was married at 12 to a 43-year-old man whom she did not know at all. This girl, the second daughter of four siblings, wanted to refuse this wedding, but she was alone: except for her, her entire family supported the decision. “My uncle came to town after my mother died and he proposed to my father that I join the man who is now my husband, a fisherman and a primary school teacher,” explains Dabeni by phone from Tobanda, a community near Pujehun (Sierra Lioness). Poor and without resources, the family of this young woman, now 17 years old, decided that marriage would be the best solution for Isata to continue studying. Nothing is further from reality. “After I got married, I couldn’t go back to school,” says the teenager, who became a mother for the first time at 14, and who spends her days working in the fields since her marriage.
Every year, around 12 million girls around the world are forced to marry. Sierra Leone ranks 18th on the list of countries with the highest prevalence of child marriage, according to Unicef. 39% of the adolescents in the country do so before the age of 18 and 13% before the age of 15. With different names, ages, but with similar circumstances, Isata’s life is repeated in other young women in this area of Sierra Lioness. In her community alone, as she recalls, there are 20 other girls like her, married before their time and who were forced to leave school forever.
To get out of this circle of social exclusion and poverty in which Dabeni’s life has been involved after her wedding at the age of 12, the young woman has joined The Right To Be a Girl, a project with which Save the Children fights against forced marriage in the Pujehun district, an impoverished and remote area in the southeast of the country. At the moment, the program has 457 adolescents as beneficiaries. “We know it may sound like a drop of water in an ocean, taking into account the total numbers of girls married early in the country, but in a region like this we are making a big difference,” explains Heather through a video call. Campbell, Save the Children’s Regional Director for Sierra Leone. The project carries out comprehensive work with young married women, not only to return them to the classrooms so that they can continue their education, but also provide them with training, such as sewing and radio workshops, so that they have a possible job opportunity and gain confidence.
In addition to these activities to improve the lives of adolescent girls, the program also seeks to educate families, the community and religious leaders about the consequences and consequences that child marriage has on young women in Sierra Leone. “I met some of these girls at the beginning, before they were on the show. And it was really heartbreaking: they didn’t look you in the eye, they cried, they didn’t have confidence in themselves. In six months, the change was remarkable: they look at you directly, they talk about their hopes, their fears. One of the most exciting things accomplished is giving them a voice, ”says Campbell.
Learning from the Ebola crisis
Sierra Leone, one of the countries hardest hit by the Ebola crisis in 2014, has extensive experience in the consequences of such an epidemic for children, especially girls: schools closed due to the spread of the virus, many were orphaned, without financial resources, adolescent pregnancies increased by 65% in some communities of the country and were forced to marry, to avoid the stigma of being single mothers.
To continue this fight against this social scourge after the epidemic, in 2018, the Government approved a strategic plan to fight and reduce the number of teenage pregnancies and child marriage (2018/2022). “It is essential that there is a commitment on the part of community leaders. We have managed to get many of them to sign an agreement not to allow this type of marriages, ”says Suleiman Braimoh, UNICEF representative in Sierra Leone, announcing that 120 communities across the country have joined.
For the millions of young people who were already forcibly married each year around the world, COVID-19 and its socioeconomic impact could grow to around 500,000 girls, while a million more could become pregnant, according to the World Report on Girls 2020. Covid-19 jeopardizes progress made, from Save the Children. According to the organization, although the increase is “a conservative estimate”, it would mean reversing 25 years of progress, in which it had been possible to reduce the rates of forced marriage in girls and avoid 78.6 million child bonds. If this continues, by 2025 a figure of 61 million forced marriages will be reached.
With the covid-19 and the closure of schools, UNICEF Sierra Leone has made an official request to the authorities so that young mothers can return to the classrooms once they are open and thus break the cycle of poverty that leads to girls to abandon their education and be married so early. Until March 2019, schools prohibited pregnant girls – many of them married early – from attending classes. “It is not the only one, but one of the elements that we have identified to understand why the programs did not work before is that the empowerment of girls is necessary so that they can say no,” says Braimoh, who knows that the battle against child marriage is not over. Isata Dabeni, who is now the mother of a 10-month-old girl, and has been able to go back to high school, knows that her experience can help others. “I would ask the leaders not to allow marriage so early, not before 18. There are consequences, destroy your future.”