The man first saw Marie Kamara as she ran with her friends past his house in a small village in Sierra Leone. Soon after, he asked the fifth-grade girl to marry him. No, she told him, adding “I’m going to school now.”
But the financial pressures caused by the coronavirus crisis were greater than her wishes. Marie’s family needed money.
The man had a job and money. He paid Marie’s family 500,000 leones (about $50) to marry Marie.
“The day they paid for me was on a Friday, and then I went to his house to stay,” Marie said. She added that at least now she gets to eat something two times a day.
In recent years, many countries had made progress against marriages of underage girls. But COVID-19 has made much of that progress disappear. The United Nations estimates that economic problems resulting from COVID-19 will drive 13 million more girls to marry before the age of 18.
India’s government put in place a nationwide lockdown in late March to slow the spread of the coronavirus. The restrictions caused millions of poor migrants to lose their jobs in cities. Many returned to the villages they had left in search of work. With schools closed and financial pressures rising, marrying off young girls became a way for families to reduce costs.
The organization ChildLine India recorded 5,214 early marriages in just four months of lockdown between March and June of this year. The actual number is likely much higher, the organization notes.
In Bangladesh, child protection officials said they received a phone call back in June warning that a child marriage was to take place within the hour. After arriving to stop the marriage, officials got the girl’s family to agree to cancel the ceremony.
The officials left, and the family held the wedding anyway.
‘One less person to feed’
In Sierra Leone, the rate of marriage under 18 had dropped from 56 percent in 2006 to 39 percent in 2017. Then COVID-19 hit. Schools closed in March. After that, child marriages rose as village girls going to school in nearby towns returned home to their parents.
Isata Dumbaya directs reproductive and maternal health for Partners in Health Sierra Leone.
“When you marry, your father is no longer responsible for feeding you, for paying your fees or doing anything else for you,” she said. “And if you come from a house with a lot of other children, indeed, this is one less person (to feed),” she added.
Many of the girls’ mothers got married as young girls too, said Dumbaya. So the mothers see early marriage as normal. “They do not see it as harming their children,” Dumbaya said.
Sierra Leone’s first lady, Fatima Maada Bio, understands the problem well. Bio escaped to Britain as a teenager after learning her father was planning to force her to marry.
She has been working to end child marriage with her “Hands Off Our Girls” campaign since her husband took office in 2018.
“Early marriage in all forms is legalized rape,” she recently told The Associated Press.
Because of COVID-19 restrictions, the campaign has had to reduce many of its outreach efforts. This means fewer face-to-face meetings with Sierra Leone’s traditional leaders, some of whom govern areas of the country so distant they lack an FM radio signal.
Many rural areas in Sierra Leone do not have secondary schools. So, teenage girls often move to distant towns to continue their education. They usually live with a relative.
Teenager Mariama Conteh left her village this year to live with an aunt and attend school. Soon after, a 28-year-old man said he wanted to marry her.
It took a month for Mariama to agree. Her aunt had threatened her, saying if she refused the man, she would have to go home. There, her father was struggling to feed two wives and 10 other children.
She cries when she thinks of the education she lost.
“It is what it is,” said Mariama, who is now seven months pregnant. “It has happened.”
I’m Ashley Thompson.
The Associated Press reported this story. Ashley Thompson adapted it for VOA Learning English. Susan Shand was the editor.
Words in This Story
maternal - adj. of or relating to a woman who is having a baby
lockdown - n. a requirement for people to stay where they are (i.e. at home) because of risks to the greater population
secondary - adj. of or relating to education of students who have completed primary school