Africa’s first ladies, led by Sierra Leone Fatima Maada Bio brought their campaign to ban early child marriage and sexual violence against women and girls before a global stage in a passionate appeal for the world to support their “Hands Off Our Girls! Campaign.
In a no-holds barred conversation organized on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly Wednesday, Bio flanked by her husband President Julius Bio, spoke to “lift the lid of silence” taboo and stigma surrounding rape and early marriage in Sierra Leone and other parts of the continent.
The high-level meeting was organised to rally support for the end of early marriage and rape in Africa, a movement which the Bios have spearheaded.
This year’s General Assembly has been dominated by delivery of the sustainable development goals, of which number 5 is Gender Equality.
In brief opening remarks, African Development Bank President Akinwumi Adesina spoke out forcefully against all forms of early marriage and said the economic empowerment of women is a critical tool to end the vicious cycle of marginalization and gender imbalance.
“That’s why the Bank is raising $3 billion to support women,” Adesina said, referring to the Bank’s Affirmative Finance Action for Women In Africa (AFAWA) initiative.
“Early marriage is not only a human rights abuse it is an economic issue,” Rachel Yates, Executive Director of Girls Not Brides, said.
Sharing intimate personal details, Maada Bio, recounted her personal story of running away from an arranged marriage to an older man in her early teens. Aided by an older sister, she took a flight out of her native Sierra Leone to the United Kingdom – without her father’s knowledge or permission. “I come from a family where girls are married at 12 years,” she said.
Three months later from the safety of the UK, her resolve was set.
“From that moment I vowed that I would not see a child being abused,” she said.
President Bio, responding to a question on how deeply set cultural mindsets could be changed, said it would take patience and persistence. “We have to leave some aspects of culture behind. We have to establish institutions and cascade our campaigns down across the entire country.
Sierra Leone has one of the highest incidences of rape and sexual assault on the continent. In February, President Bio declared a state of emergency due to the high incidences of rape.
Other prominent first ladies at the event included Jeanette Kagame of Rwanda, Clar Weah of Liberia, Antoinette Sassou Nguesso of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the first lady of Zimbabwe, Auxilla Mnangagwa, and Ermine Erdogan, first lady of Turkey.
Speaking passionately in support of her “Sierra Leonean sister,” Weah said it was time to collectively say no to abuse. “We renew our commitment to create a safe world for our girls in Africa. We entreat all presidents and heads of states to join us,” she said.
Ermine Erdogan, an ardent advocate against child marriage in Turkey and who made a special appearance to support the event, said the key to the empowerment of women was education.
“There is no excuse for early marriage. The place for a school-going child is school,” she said.
Other voices in support of the first ladies included Djereje Wordofa, UNFA Deputy Executive Director who said protection of girls and women and preventing abuse must become a national priority.
Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of the World Health Organisation said it was a subject he dreaded but had to talk about. “Child marriage reinforces poverty…It is totally unacceptable.
We must speak out against political, religious and social practices,” he said.
Since his election to office in 2018, President Bio has strongly advocated against early marriage and has tightened legal and policy frameworks for sexual offenders and rapists. The campaign is gaining traction and has been endorsed across the continent with the support of the African First Ladies.
The High-Level meeting follows a First Ladies Meeting on Combatting Child Marriage and Promoting Education of Girls in West Africa, which took place in Niamey in Niger on the Margins of the Extraordinary Session of the Assembly of Heads of State of the African Union.
“Every time I get the opportunity, I say the fight against early marriage is not a political statement, it is a personal one. We need help,” Maada Bio said.