The roots of the pregnancy/ early marriage crisis in Salone are complex, including pervasive and gendered poverty, cultural and religious norms, lack of access to contraception and maternal care, gender based violence, low educational attainment, and more. In this blog we'll look broadly at the historic context that impacts the issue as well. (See 'Child Marriage in Sierra Leone and Guinea, Cultural Roots and Girl Centered Solutions', link below)
There are several factors that render teen pregnancy outside marriage more likely. In areas decimated by war and disease, which is mainly in the south of Sierra Leone, there continues a pervasive culture of transactional sex born from the chaos and violence of war and reflecting the deeply gendered nature of poverty. Over a third of Sierra Leonean girls agree that when a man spends money on a girl, she should have sex with him. Poverty coupled with lack of strong social institutions drive girls to enter into sexual relationships with men who provide them with food, money, clothing, or some other material benefit in return for sex. In addition, sexual relationships are a means of securing tangible benefits like school fees or clothing.
In the more traditional and religious communities found in the less war and disease impacted North, religious and customary marriages take place in an attempt to ensure that a girl is married before there is any risk of pregnancy. These marriages are often associated with a younger marriage age and large age gaps between the girl and man. Marriage prior to pregnancy is also the most common arrangement within polygamous unions, which affect approximately 25% of girls 15-19.
Where marriage is pre-planned like this, it remains very much a union of two families. Each side will investigate the other, with an emissary usually in the form of an uncle sent to a girl’s natal home to carry out an investigation: questions related to a girl’s purity and piety are the most critical.
This historic context, the nature of the war and the Ebola crisis, is unique to Sierra Leone. We see in present day Salone the lingering effects of war and disease. At SGUW, we know that it is essential to understand the roots of this crisis in order to craft appropriate and effective change. We will look at more roots in the next blog and then, tools to create change.