Everything you need to know about marriage in Sierra Leone

25 Jul 2023·19 min to read
Articles
Everything you need to know about marriage in Sierra Leone 01

Sierra Leone is a west African country popular for its white-sand beaches and rich mineral resources. Thousands of marriages are performed in the country by Sierra Leoneans and foreigners from other countries. In Sierra Leone, there are three options for legally marrying. These include civil, religious, and customary marriages. The marriage laws in the country are based on both civil and customary laws. The way a civil marriage is performed is quite different from other marriages in the country. Civil marriages typically require the submission of various types of documents by the spouses, whereas customary marriages do not. 

Customary marriages also have to be registered; however, the laws guiding these types of marriages are slightly different. These will be explained further in the other sections of this article. In Sierra Leone, the legal minimum age for marriage is 18 years for both male and female spouses. The Child Act of 2007 added this to the constitution, but it is directly contradicted by the Customary and Divorce Act of 2009, which allows marriage between underage spouses. Under the customary law, there is no minimum marriage age, and as long as parental consent is provided, spouses below the age of 18 may be married off. This has done more harm than good by increasing the number of forced and child marriages in the country. 

In Sierra Leone, 30 percent of all girls are said to marry before the age of 18, with about 13 percent of them getting married before their 13th birthday. The rate of child marriages for girls is quite higher than that of boys, as only about 7 percent of boys are married before the age of 18. Sierra Leone is one of the top 20 countries in the world in terms of the prevalence of child marriages. The rest of the article will touch on the types of marriages in Sierra Leone and how they are performed.

Civil marriages 

Civil marriages performed in Sierra Leone are legally recognized and protected in the country as well as in other countries around the world. Civil marriages are performed by authorized marriage officers, and they take place in the registry. There are residency requirements for spouses who want to get married in Sierra Leone, and foreign spouses are often required to provide a valid document that supports their claim of when they arrived in the country. The laws guiding civil marriages are different from those guiding customary marriages in some aspects, and there are certain conditions that must be met by spouses before they are allowed to marry in the country. 

In Sierra Leone, one of the spouses who intends to get married must have resided in the country for a continuous period of at least 15 days. This timeframe must be reached before couples will be able to obtain a marriage certificate from the registrar. Foreign spouses may be required to provide paperwork that states that they are eligible for marriage in the country. This may be a certificate of freedom to marry or the equivalent of such a certificate in the home country of the foreign spouse. The document submitted will be subjected to verification checks from the civil registrar. 

If the registrar confirms that everything is good, he proceeds with the registration procedure. Both partners, including foreign and Sierra Leonean spouses, are required to have reached the age of 18 before contracting a marriage in the country. Under certain conditions, spouses slightly younger than this age may be allowed to marry; however, they must provide valid parental consent. The spouses must ensure they are facing no lawful hindrances that may prevent the marriage from happening in Sierra Leone. This implies that both spouses must be in good legal standing with Sierra Leone and their home country if they are foreigners. A spouse who is prohibited from getting married in his or her home country is not allowed to marry in Sierra Leone. 

Both spouses must ensure that the union is free of consanguinity or affinity impediments. Both spouses must be unrelated and mentally fit to make decisions on their own and give their free will and consent before the marriage is allowed to take place. After the notice of marriage is made in the registry, couples are expected to perform their marriage registration and ceremony within a period of three months from the time the notice was made. If the marriage ceremony does not occur within the stipulated time, the marriage will become void, and the couple will need to begin the marriage procedure from scratch to get married in Sierra Leone.

Documents Required 

  • A national identity card or valid passport must be submitted by Sierra Leoneans and foreign spouses, respectively.
  • Both partners are required to provide two witnesses within their legal capacity to act as such.
  • Certified copies of the birth certificates of both spouses must be provided, and they must carry all their necessary details.
  • Divorce or death certificate. Either of these documents must be submitted by previously married spouses who have already terminated such marriages.
  • Deed Poll. This document must be submitted by spouses who changed their names before marriage.
  • Proof of address Foreign spouses are required to have stayed in Sierra Leone for 15 days prior to the marriage application and registration.

Religious and customary marriages

Religious and customary marriages are also legally binding in Sierra Leone. The population is dominated by Muslims, with about 77 percent of them being Muslims. Christians in Sierra Leone account for 22 percent of the total population, which is less than two percent of those who practice animism or other forms of traditional religion. Muslims in Sierra Leone are only allowed to marry under Islamic law. 

The sharia law court in the country considers this type of marriage to be a civil act that does not require religious rites or ceremonies. The process of getting married in the church begins with the publication of banns. The banns are a public announcement of a couple's intention to marry that is usually published in a public place of worship in town. If no objections are raised as to why the spouses cannot be united in holy matrimony, the priest conducts an interview with the spouses, during which a suitable marriage date is set. 

Under the customary law, the consent of the bride's family is required before the marriage is allowed to take place. If the wife’s family does not give their permission, any marriage performed is considered null and void. There is a monetary consideration that must be paid by the groom for a woman’s hand in marriage. Upon marriage, men and women are not regarded as equals in Sierra Leone, and wives are seen as subordinates of their husbands.

Everything you need to know about marriage in Sierra Leone 02

Marriage traditions in Sierra Leone

Tying the Knot

In Sierra Leone, tying the knot is a marriage ritual that holds a lot of significance. On the wedding day, the wrists of the bride and groom are tied together with the bride's brass. This tradition is common in church weddings and some traditional marriages. The knot is used to signify how both partners are joined together for a happy life.

Kola 

In Sierra Leone, "kola" referred to the money that is paid by the groom to the bride's family before he is permitted to marry her in a traditional wedding ceremony. The bride's family makes a lot of items that must be provided by the groom, and if, after marriage, the husband and groom go their separate ways, the bride's family must return the Kola.

Wedding Reception

After the church weddings are concluded in Sierra Leone, newlyweds usually head to a different venue with their family and friends to host a wedding party. The wedding reception usually involves the exchange of gifts as well as foods and drinks. Guests usually have enough to eat and drink.

Same-sex marriages 

Same-sex marriages are prohibited in Sierra Leone. Male and female spouses of the same sex are not allowed to perform marriages in the country. Homosexuality has always been illegal in Sierra Leone since 1861; however, this law only applies to male homosexuals. Female homosexuals are allowed to perform same-sex sexual activities in Sierra Leone.

Polygamous marriages 

Under the penal codes of Sierra Leone, polygamous marriages are illegal. However, under the customary laws of the country, a man is allowed to marry as many wives as he pleases without facing any legal consequences. Polygamy is still practiced in a lot of rural areas of the country.

Everything you need to know about marriage in Sierra Leone 03

Marriage Laws and Rights, Costs and Duties

Laws

There are four legally recognized forms of marital union in Sierra Leone: marriage under the Christian ordinance act, marriage under the Mohammedan marriage ordinance, marriage under the civil law, and marriage under customary laws. These forms of marriage all have legal value; however, what guarantees their validity varies from one another. Civil laws and Christian laws of marriage have a lot in common. Under the Christian law of marriage, marriage must only be between a man and a woman who are single (unmarried, divorced, or widowed). There must not be any existing relationship at the time of marriage; this also applies to civil marriages. According to the laws of civil marriage, polygamy or bigamy is against the law; couples can only contract monogamous marriages. 

If one of the spouses has been married in the past but it has been dissolved as a result of divorce or the death of one of the spouses, the law requires the concerned party to submit the decree absolute of divorce or a certificate of death in the case of widowhood. Another similar point in the civil and Christian laws of marriage is the age for marriage, which is 18 years; however, anyone who wishes to get married and is under the age of 21 years must obtain parental consent, specifically the father's consent, before marriage can take place. Under the Mohammedan Ordinance Act, marriage is conducted a little bit differently. Polygamy is allowed under the Islamic laws of marriage in the country; a man is allowed to marry up to four wives, provided he has the ability to. The law does not require the couple, more specifically the groom, to be single at the time of marriage. 

The legal age for marriage is also 18 years; however, Islamic laws state that once puberty is reached, the groom and bride can marry with the consent of their legal guardians. The marriage must be registered according to Islamic laws. According to the customary laws of marriage, marriage is only considered valid after the dowry (bride price) has been paid to the family of the bride. The law allows men to marry as many wives as they can, unlike Islamic law, which limits it to four. The consent of the couple must be obtained, along with the consent of the bride's family. If consent is not obtained from the bride's family, the marriage will be considered null and void. Any form of marital union must be entered into with the free and full consent of the couple. Consent must not be obtained with the use of force or coercion.

Rights

Regardless of the type of marital union couples contract in Sierra Leone, there is an equal distribution of rights between the husband and wife. The husband and wife have the same right to own, use, and dispose of property as they wish. They have the right to decide which marital regime of property would be most effective during the course of the marriage. However, under customary marriages, the wife does not have the right to own any property as it all belongs to the husband. 

He is considered the head of the household; therefore, all properties are controlled by him, with the exception of certain properties like the bride's dowry and personal belongings. The civil laws of marriage, the Christian marriage ordinance act and the Mohammedan marriage ordinance act, grant the husband and wife the right to exit the marriage by initiating divorce, but under the customary laws of marriage, there are no specific laws that grant the couples the right to contract divorce. In accordance with inheritance rights, civil and Christian laws of marriage guarantee the rights of couples to equal inheritance. At the demise of one spouse, the surviving spouse has the right to inherit the property, land, and other assets of the deceased spouse. 

This does not apply under the Mohammedan laws of marriage. Couples have equal rights to inheritance, but if the husband does, the wife is only entitled to one-fourth of the property of her husband if they had children together; if not, she is entitled to one-eighth of the property. Under customary laws, only the husband has the right to inherit in marriage. If the husband dies, the property of the husband goes to his family members.

Costs

Marriage in Sierra Leone is quite affordable; it all depends on what the couple is going for, the number of invited guests, and the financial ability of the couple. An overnight hotel stay in Sierra Leone for the couple costs an average of 1 million SLL, which is approximately $56 per night; it also costs as much as 1.9 million SLL ($104) in more expensive and executive hotels. 

The cost of getting married in comparison with the economy of the country is very high. Couples often spend millions, combined with the cost of the bride price, which can either be in monetary value or in livestock, food stuffs, or groceries. The total cost of the ceremony is borne by the groom and his family.

Duties

The average family in Sierra Leone is patriarchal; more authority and power are vested in the husband, while the majority of the duties and responsibilities in the home rest on the shoulders of the wife. The husband is recognized as the head of the home; therefore, he has the autonomous right to make decisions concerning the wellbeing and welfare of the family. While the wife is excluded from the decision-making process in the home, she has a duty to ensure that the husband receives good counsel to guide him in making decisions that suit the interests of the family. 

The husband and wife are responsible for raising their children. They have a duty to provide for their needs, both material and nonmaterial. The responsibility to take care of the home, take care of the children, cook, and clean falls on the shoulders of the wife. The husband can help by providing support and assistance when needed. The couple has a duty to protect one another from any form of harm. They are both obligated to contribute to the health and comfort of the family.

Conclusion 

Sierra Leone is known for its diversity in terms of culture and religion. Religious marriages are performed in accordance with the principles of each religion. Sierra Leone is a secular country, and spouses have the freedom to practice any type of marriage they desire.

Under the customary laws of the country, spouses may be allowed to cohabitate; however, they may not enjoy all the rights and benefits of marriage. Both partners must have lived together for a continuous period of five years before they can declare their relationship as cohabitation. We hope this article has helped you fully understand everything you need to know about marriage in Sierra Leone.

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