Using paralegals to fight forced early marriage in Sierra Leone

Early and forced marriage continues to be a widespread and serious problem in post-war Sierra Leone, especially in rural areas. It has become a common practice that abuses the rights of children and girls. Early marriage, also known as child marriage, is the marriage of someone before the age of 18 years. Such marriages are often agreed upon without the girl’s – or her mother’s – consent. One in four girls in Sierra Leone is married by age 15 and 62 percent are married by the time they turn eighteen. The practice violates Article 16 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and puts young girls at risk for physical and developmental harm that may affect them throughout their lives.

Community-based paralegals in Sierra Leone are playing an important role fighting for the rights of children and young girls against this dangerous practice. This article showcases the role paralegals can play in these kinds of cases, detailing a specific case where paralegals helped a victim of early marriage through the justice system. From case studies like these, lessons can be drawn about how we as a society may contribute toward ending the practice.


Traditionally in Sierra Leone, the legal age for marriage varies depending on the type of marriage – customary, civil, Christian or Muslim. In most parts of the country, customary law allows a girl as young as fourteen years old to get married, with her parents’ consent. However, customary law is not considered valid in Sierra Leone when it contradicts formal law. Section 34 of Sierra Leone’s Child Rights Act of 2007 states that the minimum age of marriage – of whatever kind – “shall be eighteen years and no person shall force a child to be married.”

Furthermore, the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that marriage should be “entered only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.” When one of the people entering a marriage is younger than 18, ‘free and full’ consent cannot be assumed. According to the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), marriage before the age of 18 should not be allowed, since children do not have the ‘full maturity and capacity to act.’ The Sierra Leone government signed and ratified CEDAW in 1988.

In practice, when it comes to early marriages – especially in rural areas – a girl’s consent is considered insignificant and is rarely sought. Despite passage of new laws to protect the interests of these young girls, parents often act on their behalf, without their knowledge. Girls often have little say regarding who or when they marry.

It is not uncommon for parents to receive money and other forms of assistance from men who express interest in marrying their daughter while she is still young. Often the girl has no way of knowing or doing anything about these interactions. In some cases, such forms of transaction go on over the course of several years, adding up to a large sum of money that becomes impossible to pay back. When the girl reaches puberty and is deemed ‘of age’, around fourteen or fifteen years old, then the parents give her over for marriage to the man. Girls who refuse often find themselves in trouble with their parents, who may be under a social (though not legal) obligation to hand their daughter over for marriage.

Among other detriments, early marriage is a barrier to girls’ education. When young girls are put forward for marriage, they are most often – and sometimes forcefully – taken out of school, with little possibility to return. This practice negatively impacts their lives, their families and their communities as a whole. The impact is felt in reduced wellbeing of a future generation of young girls who suffer a lack of education and increased rates of illiteracy.

Girls who are forced to marry young face increased risk of contracting HIV and sexually transmitted infections, as well as a high risk of experiencing gender-based violence. Early and forced marriage also often leads to early pregnancy, which in many cases, especially with very young girls, leads to health complications or death during delivery. Early marriage has been identified as one of the factors responsible for the high maternal mortality rate in Sierra Leone.

The case study below demonstrates the critical role paralegals play in helping victims of early and forced marriage.

Case Study

In late August of 2012, 14-year old MK[1] was attending junior secondary school in Lunsar, northern Sierra Leone when a man working for a mining company in the area approached the relatives of her late father to ask for her hand in marriage. MK’s father had died a couple of years earlier and by that time her mother was the only one taking care of her.

Both MK and her mother rejected man’s proposal, on the grounds that MK was young and still in school. But then MK’s uncles – who had received some favors from the man and were interested in getting more – intervened, claiming that as the men and elders of the family, and because MK was the child of their late brother, it was their right to give MK’s hand in marriage to whatever man they would choose. They told the mother that she was not part of their family and warned her against standing in their way on family-related decisions.

In most Sierra Leonean customary law, a woman has very little say in decisions related to marriage. Still, because of resistance from MK and her mother, the man – through her uncles – came forward with another proposal: MK would marry the man but could continue staying with her mother until she finished school; the man would provide continuous support for her education during this time and then at the end, she would move into her matrimonial home. This proposal sounded good to the mother, who was under pressure from the family, and so she convinced her daughter to accept the new proposal.

The marriage took place and the man paid the bride price to the uncles. The amount was not disclosed to MK or to her mother. After the ceremony MK was left to stay with her mother as all had agreed. But after two months, the husband came to the house requesting that MK go to his house. He said it was his right, since he had legally married her. MK refused to go, arguing that he was violating their agreement, and her mother supported her.

The man became furious and requested that the mother pay back all the money he claimed to have spent on the marriage, including wedding costs and gifts to in-laws. He requested that the widow pay the sum of Le 1,500,000. In addition, he asked her to give over a sum of Le 200,000 to “wash him,”[2] as “tradition required.” The widow agreed to pay the money in order to save her daughter. She paid Le 400,000 and then could pay no more. The so-called husband then took the case to the chiefs, where MK’s uncles expressed support for his actions.

The chiefs presided over the matter and determined that the mother would have to pay back all of the money or else force her daughter to go to the man. The chief and his council men further exploited her by insisting she pay transport money for those who were sent to invite her to the chief’s place, as well as the cost of ”crossing the summons”[3] and the cost of taking the chiefs’ and elders’ time.

MK, knowing very well that her mother would not be able to pay the money and not wanting to go to the man, decided to run away to another village to hide. The man got wind of her escape and went to a more senior chief to complain that the mother was illegally holding onto his wife.

Because of the pressure she was facing from the uncles, the chiefs and the husband, MK’s mother made MK come out of hiding. The girl, seeing the pressure and humiliation her mother was going through, agreed to accept going to live with the man as a way to end the whole problem.

At the man’s house she was forced to have sex and beaten up if she refused. The issue of school was over – she was no longer allowed to attend school. The man intimidated her by using abusive language and aggression, and by beating her. MK could not withstand the treatment and explained what was happening to people in the community, who called the paralegals’ attention and requested assistance.

Paralegals enter the picture

The paralegals wasted no time in admitting the case. They took MK to the police station and helped her make a formal report. She appeared sick and complained that she was experiencing persistent discharge from her genital area. Following standard protocol, the police issued her a medical paper and she was told to go see a doctor for observation and possible treatment.

A female paralegal accompanied MK to the district hospital located twenty-two or so miles away. The doctor’s report showed that she had been sexually violated and had contracted a sexually transmitted infection. The paralegals helped the police with their investigation and the coordination of witnesses. They provided instrumental support by using their motorbike to go with police to the community to arrest the perpetrator. He was later released on bail as the matter was still been investigated.

For the safety of the girl, the paralegals contacted the sisters at a nearby Catholic mission and arranged for MK to stay with them in their hostel. MK stayed on with them and is still there now attending school. She was awarded a scholarship to continue her education. Her health has improved.

For her safety, everyone, including her mother, now goes through the paralegals if they wish to see her. The female paralegal is in constant touch with MK, counseling her and helping her get over the stress she went through.

The paralegals continue to follow up with the police to ensure that the prosecution goes ahead – a crucial step toward not only punishing the perpetrator but also deterring this sort of abuse in the future. The case has been trying. At one point, it appeared that the police intended to compromise the case by sending people to beg the paralegals to drop the issue.

During the initial stages of the case, when the suspect had just been arrested, the councilor representing the ward where the incident took place came to the paralegal office to appeal to the paralegals to drop the case. The councilor said that the police had told him it was the paralegals’ case and they could make such a decision. The paralegals advised him that it is against the law to force a girl under the age of 18 to marry and that the case was a state case. They explained that they were under obligation to work with the police to ensure that the case be prosecuted in court. Ultimately the police were afraid because they knew the paralegals were actively behind the case and could pursue it all the way up the chain of command.

By definition, marriage is a formal, binding partnership between consenting adults. By this definition, in MK’s case there was in fact no marriage, because MK never gave her consent. She entered the marriage by force. And regardless, because MK was just fourteen years old, she was not an adult, and so by law she was not mature enough to give consent.

The burden fell to MK’s mother – who assumed full responsibility for MK after the death of her father – to prevent her daughter’s marriage.

Yet gender inequality persists in Sierra Leone. Women and girls often occupy a lower status in society as a result of social and cultural traditional beliefs. It is not uncommon for girls to be denied their rights and see their ability to play an equal role in their homes and communities stifled. MK’s mother tried, but within a paradigm of patriarchal dominance she felt she had no choice but to give up and follow the decisions of her deceased husband’s male relatives.

She is now a key witness in the case. During statement taking, MK’s mother was not satisfied with the way the police took her statement. She said she was not given enough time to tell her story. The paralegals approached the Local Unit Commander[4] (LUC) to protest that the witness statement had not been taken properly. So the LUC instructed his men to take the statement again, this time in the presence of a paralegal.

There are laws that prohibit these practices but abuse continues because of failure to enforce them. Early marriage continues to be prevalent in large part because prosecutions are seldom brought against perpetrators and those who aid them. The difficulty in prosecuting or taking other legal forms of legal action to deal with these kinds of matters is that in most cases there are so many people involved – elderly family members like fathers and uncles, religious leaders and even chiefs – as in this case. With so many interested parties it is easy for the case to be compromised at the community level – and this happens at the expense of justice.

In this particular case, the paralegals seem to have been able to overcome threats to due process. Our pressure on the police induced them to bring the case to court, where MK’s so-called husband, along with the uncles who conspired with him to force the marriage, were charged. The case is ongoing and we are doing our best to see that the prosecution team does its work. If the case goes on well, it is going to convey an important precedent in this part of the country and other areas as well.

[1] MK represents the client’s name, changed to maintained confidentiality.

[2] According to some traditions in Sierra Leone, if a woman divorces or refuses a man, she is obligated to pay a sum of money to cleanse the man of ill luck.

[3] Paying to the chief the same amount of money that was paid to the complainant.

[4] The head of the police who commands a division

December 9, 2014 | Daniel Sesay