The man first caught a glimpse of Marie Kamara as she ran with her friends past his house near the village primary school. Soon after, he proposed to the fifth-grader.
“I’m going to school now. I don’t want to get married and stay in the house,” she told him.
But the pressures of a global pandemic on this remote corner of Sierra Leone were greater than the wishes of a schoolgirl.
Nearby mining operations had slowed with the global economy. Business fell off at her stepfather’s tailoring shop, where outfits he had sewn now gathered dust. The family needed money.
Her suitor was a small-scale miner in his mid-20s, but his parents could provide rice for Marie’s four younger sisters and access to their watering hole. They could pay cash.
Before long, Marie was seated on a floor mat in a new dress as his family presented hers with 500,000 leones ($50) inside a calabash bowl along with the traditional kola nut.
“The day they paid for me was on a Friday and then I went to his house to stay,” she says flatly, adding that at least now she gets to eat something twice a day.
Many countries had made progress against such traditional and transactional marriages of girls in recent decades, but COVID-19’s economic havoc has caused significant backsliding: The United Nations estimates that hardships resulting from COVID-19 will drive 13 million more girls to marry before the age of 18.
Though most such marriages take place in secret, Save the Children estimates that this year alone, nearly half a million more girls under 18 are at risk of being married off worldwide, most in Africa and Asia, but also in the Middle East. One aid organization said staffers in a remote corner of Sierra Leone overheard a relative offering up a girl as young as 8 for marriage earlier this year. When chastised, the grandmother later denied doing so.
In most cases, needy parents receive a dowry for their daughter — a bit of land or livestock that can provide income, or cash and a promise to take over financial responsibility for the young bride. The girl, in turn, takes on the household chores of her husband’s family and often farm work too.
In pre-pandemic Jordan, only about 10% of girls were married before the age of 18, a much lower percentage than in Africa or South Asia. The number, though, was greater among Palestinian and Syrian refugees there and they are ever more vulnerable, according to the Girls Not Brides organization.
“Sadly, we have seen an increase in child marriage in refugee camps since the beginning of the pandemic as families struggle to cope,” said Tanya Chapuisat, the UNICEF representative for Jordan.
India’s harsh lockdown to contain the virus in late March caused millions of impoverished migrants to lose their jobs in cities and many journeyed back to the towns and villages they had left in search of work.
With schools closed and pressure on household finances mounting, marrying off young girls has become a more viable option for reducing expenses.
The ChildLine India recorded 5,214 early marriages in just four months of lockdown between March and June 2020 across India, considered to be a vast undercount as the majority of cases are not reported, the organization says.
In one instance, a 13-year-old girl in Uttar Pradesh notified police that her unemployed father intended to forcibly marry her, said officer Narendra Nath Srivastava. The marriage was averted but not before he took 50,000 rupees (about $675) from the boy’s family.
“As the money transaction had taken place, the father was arrested because we feared that the poor girl could have been pushed to child trafficking,” the police officer said.
Similarly, in Pakistan’s southern Sindh province, child protection services reported 17 child marriages that were stopped or later dissolved in the first 10 months of the year.
“It’s a small number compared to reality. We know that,” said Fauzia Masoom, director of Sindh Child Protection Authority.
Intervention is only sometimes effective at preventing the marriages, even where they are illegal. In many countries the legal age to marry is 19, often there are loopholes for parental consent that are used in cases of economic need and early pregnancy to blunt social stigma.
Child protection authorities in Bangladesh said they received an 8:30 p.m. call back in June warning that a child marriage was to take place within the hour.
The girl’s family thought they could use the lockdown to marry off their daughter in secret. As soon as the officials arrived, however, the groom and his family ran away.
Authorities counseled the girl’s family on the consequences of early marriage for their daughter — an end to her education and likely a pregnancy before she is ready. The family said they were desperate because the father was out of work due to the COVID-19 crisis, but promised not to have her marry before she becomes an adult.
Then they simply waited for officials to leave and held the wedding at two in the morning.
In Sierra Leone, the rate of marriage under 18 had dropped from 56% in 2006 to 39% in 2017 — a major achievement in the eyes of child protection activists. Then COVID-19 hit, schools closed in March and child marriages accelerated as many village girls who had been attending classes in nearby towns returned home to their parents.
It wasn’t clear when or even if school ever would resume and many parents feared their idle daughters would get pregnant out of wedlock, said Isata Dumbaya, who manages 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 for 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).”
The willingness to sacrifice a daughter in periods of economic hardship underscores the lives many young girls have in this part of Africa. They are largely seen as household help as children, sent out to gather firewood or water at sunrise, and often the last to be fed at mealtime, until they join their future husbands to perform the same chores and more.
Many of the girls’ mothers were themselves married off as teenagers, said Dumbaya, and see early marriage as normal. “They do not see it as harming their children,” she said.
It’s a mindset that Sierra Leone’s first lady, Fatima Maada Bio, knows first hand and has been working to change with her “Hands Off Our Girls” campaign since her husband took office in 2018.
Bio managed to escape to the United Kingdom as a teenager after learning her father intended to marry her off to someone. A cousin told her father the pair were headed upcountry. Instead, Bio was taken to the airport without his knowledge and did not marry the man chosen for her.
She has made it her life’s work to help other underage girls: “Early marriage in all forms is legalized rape,” she told The Associated Press in a recent interview.
Sex with underage girls is illegal in Sierra Leone, but it is rarely enforced. Police say cases aren’t reported because the families already have agreed to the marriage whether the brides have or not.
While the billboards with the first lady’s image and “Marriage is My Choice; Education is My Right” still line the roadsides, COVID-19 precautions mean the campaign has had to scale back many of its outreach efforts. That means fewer face-to-face meetings with Sierra Leone’s traditional leaders who are known as paramount chiefs, some of whom govern swaths of the country so remote they lack an FM radio signal let alone internet.
“Unfortunately when you can’t congregate, you are limited,” she said. “Not everybody here is conversant with technology where you can say, ‘Let’s have a Zoom meeting.’ And even if you have a community meeting, how many people can log in?”
As a result of the lack of contact and scrutiny, Sierra Leone’s first lady acknowledges that she does not have a complete picture of the rising rate of child marriages.
“I believe that a whole lot of girls would have gone through early marriage silently because movements were restricted and we can’t reach them,” she said.
Sierra Leone closed its borders before the country had registered its first COVID-19 case. As a result, the country has seen only 2,434 confirmed cases and 74 deaths. Only 76 of those cases were confirmed in Kono district, but the economic toll here has brought many families already living on the edge to a breaking point.
Underage marriages are now on the rise across ethnic groups and religions, according to interviews with school officials, traditional leaders and the health workers who treat the young and pregnant.
The men are always older, though most child brides don’t even know their husbands’ ages. Some don’t even know their own in a country where few have birth certificates. The schoolgirl Marie thought she might be 16, though most of her classmates are 12.
Gladys Katingor, a midwife in Koidu, has seen girls as young as 13 come in pregnant, some with husbands old enough to be their grandfathers. The nurses here say some of the youngest ones only develop breasts with their pregnancies.
Most of the time since COVID-19 there is not even a marriage ceremony at the local mosque or church: Parents simply accept suitors’ proposals and then deliver their daughters to the groom’s home, paramount chiefs say.
And even when the marriage turns violent, the girl is pressured to stay.
Kadiatu Mansaray, now 15, says her widowed mother pushed her into marriage during the pandemic because of financial hardship and because the teenager’s prospects for a husband already were considered limited as she had gotten pregnant once before at 12. She can’t be sure just how much money was offered as a bride price: She was crying too hard at the ceremony to see straight.
“I was not ready to get married. I wanted to learn something first,” she says.
The man had met her while she was washing clothes in a nearby brook in this forested corner near the border with Guinea. The divorce came as swiftly as the marriage.
A month after leaving her husband, Kadiatu’s left eye is still blackened from his last beating. Her offense, he said, was sharing their limited food with others.
“He told me: ‘We don’t have money to buy food. I asked you not to give food to others and you did anyway.’”
Now she’s back in the village with her mother, walking to the closest village of Kombayendeh on market days to sell oranges.
Early marriages were happening so often in this part of Sierra Leone that traditional leaders in the Lei chiefdom instituted a new bylaw imposing a 500,000 ($50) fine on anyone having sex with a minor, even if the man is married to the child. Yet local leaders in Kombayendeh can’t recall a single fine being issued.
On rare occasions, some teenagers manage to escape early marriage with the help of supportive relatives but that assistance is often temporary.
Naomi Mondeh was just 15 and had only finished the fifth grade when her parents said that they could no longer afford her schooling. A man from neighboring Liberia working in the timber trade offered the cash-strapped family a 50-kilogram bag of rice.
“They came and told me that someone wants my hand in marriage, and they said: ‘Naomi, you know our situation now. We do not have anything. And there is a man who wants to marry you and help you,’” she recalled. “They told me that if I reject him, they would not take care of me anymore.”
Naomi didn’t know his age, or that he already had one wife. Soon she was competing for attention and money with another woman. Her husband often would leave her alone with no money for food. Only through the generosity of neighbors could she eat during his long absences.
She complained bitterly to her parents, but her fate was sealed.
“They said: ‘Your husband already married you, so you must be patient.’ But I told them that I can’t be patient with this kind of marriage, this type of forced marriage that you put me into, I can’t be patient with it.”
Even amidst the rainy season when roads turn to sludge, isolating her village from the rest of the world, Naomi was able to escape in November by motorcycle taxi to Koidu, the largest nearby town, where an aunt was willing to take her in.
Only now her parents know where she is. They have told her she can stay while they try to work things out. Naomi is resolute, though, that she is done with her husband and is learning how to become a seamstress.
“There is nothing that will make me to return to him again because there will be more suffering for me. I will stand firm to not go back.”
Since many rural areas in Sierra Leone do not have secondary schools, teenage girls often move in with relatives or friends in distant towns to continue their education. Mariama Conteh, who estimates her age at 17 but seems much younger, had left her remote village near the border with Guinea to live with an aunt in Koidu and attend school. Then in April a 28-year-old man in their compound expressed interest in her.
It took a month for Mariama to say yes over her aunt’s threats to send her back to her village, where her father is struggling to feed two wives and 10 other children and her mother would be embarrassed by her return.
“The people in the village would mock us,” she says. “It would be shameful for me and my mom.”
She bursts into uncontrollable sobs when she thinks of the future she once hoped for. Her older sister was able to go on to senior secondary school before she was married, something now completely out of reach for Mariama.
“It is what it is,” she says, now 7 months pregnant and soon to put a baby on her back instead of a schoolbag. “It has happened.”
Mariama’s husband senses her unhappiness but is enthusiastic about the pregnancy and hopes the baby will be a boy. So does Mariama.
If she has a daughter, one thing is certain, she says: “I will not give my child to anybody. I will take care of her.”