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Interview: Sabrina Mahtani, co-founder and executive director, AdvocAid

by
06 July 2012

Sabrina Mahtani, co-founder and executive director, AdvocAid

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 been detained.

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 AdvocAid.

 

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 provinces.

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 decisions.

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 sea.

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 individual lives.

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 me.

Sabrina Mahtani was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

www.inspiredindividuals.org www.advocaidsl.com

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