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An Early Marriage Near Miss

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By ChildFund Sierra Leone
Posted on 12/10/2015
Fatmata, 15

Fatmata, 15

Whenever Fatmata was out of school or finished with her chores of the day, you could find her with her best friends: books. The 15-year-old was known around her small Sierra Leone village as an intelligent girl, full of potential and committed to her studies.

So, when the government announced that schools would reopen after their long closure due to last year’s Ebola crisis, Fatmata joyfully began to prepare for her return. She had been promoted to junior secondary school year 3 the year before and was eager to tackle the Basic Education Certificate exams that would assure her promotion to the senior secondary level.

But Fatmata’s happiness was cut short one day, when her father called her in to let her know that she would not be returning to school after all — that he could no longer afford her school expenses, and that he had identified a suitor she must marry.

Fatmata with her foster mother.

Fatmata with her foster mother.

The man was in his 40s, nearly her father’s age. The agreement had been made years before, and the prospective groom had even been providing the family with financial support ever since, including Fatmata’s school costs.

Fatmata couldn’t control her tears as she imagined getting married so young, while all the rest of her friends went to school.

Her father threatened to disown her if she did not accept the marriage.

Fatmata didn’t know what to do. She was afraid to talk to anyone and risk her father’s punishment. She could think of no one else to turn to; even the village elders feared her father as hard-hearted. For days, she cried and refused to eat, hoping that would change his mind. It didn’t.

Finally, Fatmata thought to tell her story to the community mobilizer of ChildFund’s local partner organization in her community, the Daindemben Federation. The mobilizer took her straight to the local partner’s office so she could report the matter to the child protection unit. The unit swung into action, dispatching a team to the village to investigate further and later filing a report with Sierra Leone’s Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs, as well as the Family Support Unit of the local police station.

One of the Federation’s female board members temporarily took Fatmata in as a foster child, providing her with counseling while the issue was addressed.

Eventually, authorities summoned Fatmata’s father and the suitor into town, where they were warned to give up the idea of the proposed marriage or risk being prosecuted in contravention of Sierra Leone's Child Rights Act of 2007, which prohibits marriage before age 18.

Fatmata in her new school uniform.

Fatmata in her new school uniform.

Fatmata stayed in foster care because of worries about possible retribution by her father, and she enrolled in a new school. The Federation took care of her school needs.

“I want to thank Daindemben for saving me,” says Fatmata. “I never thought I would be able to go to school again. I was afraid to get married at my age!”

Meanwhile, the Federation continued mediating with and counseling Fatmata’s father, who eventually reached out to reconcile with her. But he encouraged her to stay with her new foster mother, while promising his fullest support. He has been a regular visitor ever since.

Fatmata recently took her Basic Education Certificate exams and is waiting to hear the results. But she is hopeful and has big plans.

“There are other children like me out there who might be going through the same thing,” she says. “I am asking Daindemben to continue helping us children to achieve our dreams. As for me, I want to study hard and go to the university. I want to become a lawyer so that I can help the less privileged.”