AdvocAid provides access to justice to girls and women
in conflict with the law in Sierra Leone, as well as
rehabilitation and after-care services for girls and women who have
Thankfully, it is now paid work, and we receive
donor funds, although at the start of our work, for many years, I
and other AdvocAid members worked voluntarily.
I am a lawyer by profession. I trained in the
UK, where I worked in legal aid for two years, which gave me a
great foundation for the work I currently do.
I was interested in social justice from an early
age. I am from Zambia, and was exposed to poverty and
inequality early on in my life. Later on, my father was arrested
for treason. The charge was politically motivated. The experience
made me realise the importance of access to justice for all people,
no matter what their background or financial status.
I also saw the impact of imprisonment on the wider
family. I decided to train as a lawyer and to come back to
work in Africa.
I was undertaking research on the death penalty in
Sierra Leone, and experienced first-hand the difficult
living conditions and delays in justice for prisoners there,
particularly women and their children in prison. On my return to
Sierra Leone to work for the War Crimes Tribunal, I started
volunteering in the prison, together with some female friends who
were equally passionate about assisting vulnerable women.
We started by just donating clothes and teaching a
literacy class, but soon realised that we needed to do
more for this very neglected population, and decided to form
The brutal 11-year civil war, and preceding
years of corruption and bad governance, resulted in a lack of key
services, such as legal aid or prison reform. For example, the main
prison in Freetown, Pademba Road, was built in 1914 to house around
300 prisoners. It now contains around 1400 prisoners.
With so many competing needs into a post-conflict
country, prison reform is often low on the agenda. There
are many factors that still make it difficult for accused persons
to access justice, such as backlogs at the courts, archaic laws,
missing files, corruption, lack of knowledge about legal rights,
and too few lawyers in the country, particularly in the
Women across the world make up a small percentage of the
prison population, and therefore their gender-specific
needs are often overlooked. There are international requirements
for separate prisons, health services, rehabilitation services -
and many women are detained with their children.
Most women who come into conflict with the law have a
background of abuse, poverty, or mental illness.
I must add that there have been some
improvements. There are now two separate detention
facilities for women prisoners in Sierra Leone, and a Legal Aid Act
has just been passed.
AdvocAid has a team of fantastic lawyers and
paralegals. We're expanding our work throughout Sierra
Leone. Our legal-aid work has made a big difference to the lives of
women, shortening the length of time some spend in pre-trial
detention, and making sure innocent women are not convicted. Two
women on death row had their convictions overturned.
We also focus on rehabilitation: literacy
classes, skills training, and welfare provision. We have an
after-care service where women released from prison can have
emergency support, such as money to get home, and then
skills-training or start-up grants for them to rebuild their lives
again. We also run an ex-prisoner support group.
We also want to reform the criminal-justice
system. We also run capacity building projects, such as
training prison officers and law students, in order to strengthen
the justice system.
I'm also the co-founder of Salone Style, a
jewellery-making co-operative, which provides disadvantaged women
with skills and a source of income. Our lead design-mentor
is a fantastic jewellery designer who was trained at Saint Martin's
College of Art and Design, and the products are all made from
materials locally sourced in Sierra Leone.
I also co-founded Opin Yu Yi, which means "Open
Your Eyes" in Krio, the local language. It's the first human-rights
film festival in Sierra Leone. We screened several international
and local films with a human-rights theme to a crowd of more than
1500 people at the first festival in February 2012, including in
Kroo Bay, one of the worst slum areas in Freetown.
We are using popular culture, through jewellery and
films. I think it is key that we continue to be creative
when responding to development needs.
I'm always amazed at how our ex-prisoners can put
together an incredible outfit with very little expense. I
think most people, regardless of background, enjoy luxuries such as
fashion or entertainment.
We are currently embarking on a TV drama, which
is a fictional series about a woman who is arrested. The aim is
again to use popular media to educate people about their rights in
the criminal-justice system.
It can be very difficult. We've had women in
prison who have died, or whose children have died. The prayer by
Reinhold Niebuhr is always one that I cling to: "God grant me the
serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change
the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference."
It's hard being in Sierra Leone sometimes, far
from my family in Zambia and the UK. However, I am thankful that I
have many close friends in Sierra Leone, and also for the Tearfund
"Inspired Individuals" scheme, which provides mentorship, support,
and financial support to social entrepreneurs. I have met many
wonderful people through the scheme.
I wanted to be a lawyer, actress, or a writer,
and in some ways I have managed to do all three. The most important
choice I made was becoming a Christian. And then becoming a lawyer.
I regret letting my fears stop me from making bold and difficult
My father really influenced my life. He is a
very strong and courageous person. with a deep faith. He has always
supported me to achieve my dreams and calling.
I love poetry, and Dennis Brutus is one of my
favourite poets. He was a South African anti-apartheid activist,
and wrote many beautiful poems while he was detained. Aminatta
Forna is a Sierra Leonean author and has written many wonderful
books. The Devil that Danced on the Water is one of my
favourites. It is her memoir of her childhood in Sierra Leone and
the UK, and the arrest of her father who was a politician.
A pastor at my home church in Zambia once spoke about
identity, and how easy it is to base our identity in
worldly things such as our career, family, or relationships, which
change easily, rather than have a more solid foundation.
Franco's, I think, is the most beautiful place in the
world. It is a restaurant run by an Italian man and his
Sierra Leonean family on Sussex Beach just outside of Freetown, and
I've had some very happy moments there. I love the sound of the
The psalms are wonderful. They capture almost
every emotion, and they're a great comfort and encouragement during
difficult times. The book of Numbers can be quite hard to read.
What last made me angry? A friend in Sierra
Leone was sick, and I went with him to hospital. So many people
here without money lack basic health-care.
I'm happiest spending a day on the beach with
friends. Or seeing the work we do make an impact in
I pray most for our work at AdvocAid, and my
friends and family.
The young lawyers and paralegals I work with at AdvocAid
give me hope for the future. They are so passionate about
their work and obtaining justice for marginalised women. They are
the future of Sierra Leone.
I'd like to be locked in with Martin Luther
King. His life, words, and faith have profoundly inspired
Sabrina Mahtani was talking to Terence Handley