Imagine sitting in jail for months, or years, on a charge of loitering. Or being detained indefinitely because you borrowed a few dollars from a neighbor, to feed your family, and couldn’t repay the loan when you said you would.
In many countries, neither offense would lead to incarceration. But for many vulnerable women in Sierra Leone, the threat of languishing in jails for seemingly minor infractions is a reality.
AdvocAid, a new grantee of the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, is working to change that. The organization is leading efforts to increase access to justice for women and girls in Sierra Leone through its holistic approach to providing legal aid.
“When we started our work nearly 15 years ago, there was very little global attention on incarcerated women,” said Sabrina Mutani, co-founder of AdvocAid. “Things have gotten better, but I still think there’s not enough attention now. Women make up between 2 to 6% of the global prison population, so they are just a small minority and that means they are often neglected.”
AdvocAid has helped more than 2,500 women with legal issues and reached thousands more through its educational campaigns. In addition to addressing prolonged incarcerations for loitering or debt charges, the organization secured the release of five women who faced capital punishment — including Sierra Leone’s longest-serving woman on death row.
For the past three decades, the Mott Foundation’s grantmaking for people-centered justice has focused on strengthening the community advice office sector in South Africa. Last year, the Foundation expanded its work to four additional countries in Africa — Kenya, Malawi, Rwanda and Sierra Leone — to help narrow the ever-widening justice gap worldwide.
Mott support will help AdvocAid extend its legal aid work, as well as efforts to address the social welfare needs of women in custody.
Mutani, a human rights lawyer who currently works as a senior policy advisor for The Elders, came to Sierra Leone in the early 2000s, shortly after the end of the country’s civil war. While working at the time for the United Nations war crimes tribunal, she also carried out volunteer work in prisons and was struck by the conditions female prisoners endured.
“There weren’t any of the things that women need in terms of medical or hygiene facilities. And the prison was really run down — nearly 100 years old,” Mutani said. “Many of the women were there and hadn’t gone to court for three, four or five years, and most of them had young children with them. The stark realities for women in the criminal justice system really struck me at how they were so forgotten.”
That experience led her and three other women lawyers to start the volunteer project in 2006 that eventually became AdvocAid. Today, the organization’s team of lawyers, paralegals and social workers operate across the country, striving to ensure vulnerable women have access to comprehensive justice services, such as fair representation and post-release rehabilitation, as well as legal rights education and mediation aimed at preventing incarceration.
Dysfunctional justice system
Sierra Leone’s justice system is still evolving after years of instability that remained after its 11-year civil war ended in 2002. Mutani said navigating the justice system can be challenging for anyone, but women are particularly at risk.
“Over the years, we’ve learned a large barrier for women to access justice is a severe lack of awareness around their rights,” she said. “This creates huge vulnerability, with women pleading guilty without knowing what it means, signing confessions they can’t read or paying bribes for bail.”
Though Sierra Leone does not require financial payment to secure bail, there are still legal hurdles that put bail out of reach for many. Mutani explained that conditions like having close ties in the community, being a property owner, having an important job or even showing ID can be difficult or impossible to meet if you’re poor or from a rural community.
Moreover, AdvocAid estimates there are just 500 lawyers in Sierra Leone among a total population of nearly 8 million people. Most are based in the capital Freetown, where they have opportunity to work for large corporations or in private practice. Beyond distance and scarcity, poverty — the root cause of incarceration for many women — ensures lawyers are out of reach for much of the population.
The dearth of lawyers underscores the importance of paralegals. Mutani said much of AdvocAid’s most important work comes from the daily efforts of these often unsung heroes.
“Paralegals are fundamental to so much of the work that is done in Sierra Leone,” she said. “They can intervene at police stations, trace sureties, contact families, check on children, and provide other advice and personal support. Their work helps avoid costs to the criminal justice system, as well as the socioeconomic cost of taking a woman away from her family.”
AdvocAid paralegals like Namsa Thoranka, who is based in Freetown, often have a better understanding of local challenges because they come from the communities where they work. Thoranka spends a lot of time in police stations informing arrestees of their rights, advocating for bail and mediating debt disputes that often lead to women being detained on “fraudulent conversion” charges.
“We fill in the loopholes that many people get caught in when they can’t afford a lawyer,” said Thoranka. “And lawyers don’t often have time to leave their chambers to visit police stations, but we can do the groundwork that’s needed. It’s much easier for a woman to talk to us and get help with sorting out less serious legal troubles.”
While AdvocAid is delivering essential legal services at the grassroots level, it’s also making an impact on a national scale. Its collective advocacy efforts with other civil society organizations led to the passage of Sierra Leone’s progressive Legal Aid Act in 2012.
The law — one of the first of its kind in Africa — recognizes paralegals as legitimate legal aid providers. It also established the Legal Aid Board, which was tasked with coordinating and increasing delivery of services throughout the country.
“It was important to make sure the new law had a hybrid legal aid system that included civil society and recognized paralegals, [while also] providing government aid,” Mutani said. “I think it is a great model for other societies. Sierra Leone is an example of how paralegals and lawyers can work well together and complement each other.”