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Child Marriage an Issue on International Day of the Girl Child

'Adama' (not her real name) is a 16-year-old girl whose parents wanted her to marry a man more than twice her age after he got her pregnant, Freetown, Sierra Leone, Oct. 8, 2015. (Photo: N. deVries)

Sunday, October 11, is the International Day of the Girl Child, which recognizes girls' rights and the challenges they face such as child marriage. According to the organization Girls not Brides, the rates of child marriage have risen sharply. It also says child marriage can increase during natural and humanitarian disasters. Now, the organization is calling on governments worldwide to implement policies and plans to end child marriage. In Sierra Leone the issue is a growing concern.

Adama, (not her real name) is just 16 years old . She comes from a poor family and started dating a man in his 30s because he was helping her financially. When she got pregnant, her stepfather drove her out of the house and told her to marry the man.

When the man found out she was pregnant he abandoned her.

As Adama fights back tears she explains in her native Krio language that she needs help and is ashamed, because of the pregnancy.

This kind of situation is all too common, says Mariama Munia Zombo. She is the head of advocacy and communications with the nongovernmental organization PLAN in Sierra Leone.

Poverty often leads parents to force girls to get married. And when a girl is pregnant it is seen as a disgrace so parents want them married off.

Zombo says the Ebola outbreak, which broke out in Sierra Leone last year, may have made things worse.

“There is a lot of anecdotal evidence that child marriage increased during the Ebola crisis, but no study has proven that child marriage actually increased,” said Zombo.

She says child brides are less likely to continue their education, more likely to be abused by husbands, and more likely to face problem pregnancies than more mature mothers. Sierra Leone has one of the highest rates of maternal mortality in the world.

Kadijatu Buya-Kamara is the Director of Children’s Affairs with the Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs .

She acknowledges that child marriage is an issue.

Currently the laws in Sierra Leone are conflicting. One law says child marriage is illegal while another says that, if a parent gives consent, a girl under 18 can be married.

“So obviously, we’ve spotted these problems and we’re going to rectify it. We’re working on it as a government,” said Kamara.

The government is also working on raising awareness, through chiefs and religious leaders of communities, of the implications of child marriage.

Still, there is a long way to go for Sierra Leone and many other countries.

According to Girls not Brides, approximately 15 million girls are married every year before they reach 18 years.

It estimates that if no action is taken, 1.2 billion girls will be married as children by 2050.