President Julius Maada Bio on Tuesday promulgated a law banning child marriage in a country where hundreds of thousands of girls are married before turning 18.

“Freedom has come for our women,” Bio said during a ceremony organised by feminist groups and west African first ladies in the capital Freetown.

Sierra Leone’s parliament approved the law last month, passing a bill that criminalises marrying girls below 18 with jail terms of at least 15 years or a stiff fine of more than $2,000.

“This is an accomplishment that will define my administration,” said Bio, calling it a “beacon of hope in Africa where women have boundless opportunities to be and determine their own future and inspire the world.”

He urged the country to “nurture” equality “by eliminating all forms of violence and exclusion vices against our own women”.

The Save the Children NGO lauded a “historic” law.

The law also bans men from living with underage girls and sets out a compensation package for those who are married or fall pregnant before turning 18.

In Sierra Leone, a country of nine million people, there were 800,000 wives aged under 18 in 2017, including 400,000 aged less than 15, according to UNICEF.

Child brides suffer lifelong disadvantages, according to Save the Children’s director Patrick Analo, which include being excluded from future educational and economic opportunities.

But the rate of child marriage has been slowly dropping over recent decades.

According to UNICEF, 30 percent of girls had been married before their 18th birthday in 2017, down from 37 percent 25 years earlier.

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