Women have a number of difficulties when they come to face to face with the legal system in Sierra Leone. Their low levels of education and literacy make seemingly simple things − understanding a charge or signing a confession − extremely problematic. Women were also among the vulnerable groups that fared worst under the state of emergency measures brought in to tackle Ebola, with many arrested and detained for alleged out-of-hours trading or for the (not illegal) failure to wash their hands.
To try to tackle some of these issues, the Sierra Leonean organisation − AdvocAid − is using popular media, from police dramas to music, to educate women about their legal rights if arrested or detained and improve their chances of a fair hearing. Here, Simitie Lavaly, AdvocAid’s Executive Director, introduces some of their recent initiatives.
As AdvocAid approaches its 10 year anniversary, writing this guest blog for Penal Reform International provides a good opportunity to reflect on our achievements, challenges and opportunities to be creative when it comes to legal rights education. For many, the latter may not sound too possible…here at AdvocAid though, we’ve found a way, and it’s not only been a great learning experience, but a lot of fun!
For those of you who haven’t heard of AdvocAid, we provide access to justice for girls and women in Sierra Leone via legal aid. We also deliver education programmes on legal rights, as well as advocacy and research to try and change the legal landscape in Sierra Leone for the better.
The challenges and barriers that confront women from having access to justice are numerous; low education levels compound legal understanding; illiteracy can lead to signing confessions that can’t be read; poverty is intrinsically connected to incarceration; and the civil war (1991-2002) can still be seen in the low tolerance levels of those that lived through the war years – they’re more willing to engage in conflict.
To run alongside this, the country is weak in upholding and interpreting international human rights norms; the Ebola epidemic has really highlighted this. The imposed State of Emergency has led to the most vulnerable being targeted, with women arrested for trading out of hours when all they’re doing is going home with their wares, being arrested for not washing their hands (which isn’t illegal) and most tragically of all, a group being detained for over six months without charge at the hands of the Executive. Fear has overtaken justice.
Combined, this paints a pretty bleak picture of what AdvocAid is contending with, which may be why we’ve sought such creative approaches to conveying messages. With illiteracy causing a constant barrier, we use a lot of sound and visual based messaging, to try and teach women about their legal rights. A few ways in which we’ve done this, include:
- Producing the educational four part TV drama, Police Case, and airing it on the national TV broadcaster SLBC, followed by radio discussions as well as putting it online for international audiences
- Producing the song ‘Nar Yu Right’ in the Freetown Female Prison on Human Rights Day with female Sierra Leone hip-hop artist Star Zee
- Producing a radio drama – “Boinke” – which highlights the story of market traders arrested and detained for owing a debt and suggesting alternative dispute resolution
- Painting murals that depict the UN Bangkok Rules on the Treatment of Female Prisoners onto the walls of Freetown Correctional Centre
Police Case is probably the most well-known popular culture based educational resource we have created. The series is based on real-life legal scenarios that AdvocAid has dealt with, and incorporates narratives and characters to bring these situations to life, educating the audience about their legal rights along the way. Series 1 has been aired several times now, was shown at the Opin Yu Yi Human Rights Film Festival, and was proudly nominated for an Innovating Justice Prize in 2012. Last year, we invested in developing the resource further, and launched a DVD and Facilitator’s Guide to support legal education using the series.
This year, we’re filming Series 2, which will be eight episodes long, and addresses issues that we know specifically affect women in Sierra Leone: Gender-based violence, Loitering, Freedom of Movement, Juvenile Justice, Child trafficking, Public Order Offences, Police Complaints, Street Trading, Micro Credit, Early Marriage, Infanticide and Road Traffic Laws.
It’s hard to believe that some of the girls and women we represent don’t know the difference between pleading guilty and not-guilty, but this is the reality of the level of knowledge we’re working with, and it is AdvocAid’s role to find the best way of conveying these messages to the women and girls at most risk.
A major challenge we face with using popular culture for legal education, and one that’s becoming more of an issue with funders, is that of measuring our impact. With Police Case for example, we don’t have the resource or capacity to hold surveys post-airing to measure change in legal understanding, and SLBC don’t have viewer ratings so we can’t accurately measure our reach.
We overcome this through measuring reach via community screenings by partners and YouTube hits, as well as collecting anecdotal feedback via SMS and Social Media. This anecdotal feedback tells us that we’re doing is achieving its aim: “I will take the message to my village”; “It is really educative, I only hope you will continue with more episodes”; “The programme helps us to understand police issues”; and “such a great educational tool”. In an age of impact tools, indicators and outcome statements (rightfully) holding so much importance, though, we find applying for funding for ongoing creative activities, a challenge.
We still believe however that using popular culture to convey key messages, is one of the strongest approaches for us. Research by Foundation Hirondelle in 2010 revealed that radio and TV are the most popular forms of media in Sierra Leone, with 82% of the population listening regularly to the radio and 26% having access to TV. With the adult literacy rate in Sierra Leone standing at a bleak 43.3%, accessing popular culture to convey legal education makes sense.
We know that our approach to legal education via a TV series helped to bring a discussion about legal rights and police accountability from the court rooms and police stations to the public space. It enabled people to safely talk about issues in their communities by referring to the characters in the TV show, and sparked debate about what is and isn’t right.
In the context of where we’re working – where inequitable distribution of wealth and lack of structures to protect rights have led to a weakened judicial system, lawyers deal with daily requests for bribes and many police officers abuse their position of power – this is a massive achievement and one that we’ll continue using to ensure women know their legal rights and have the language, means and confidence to assert them.
About the author
Simitie is Executive Director of AdvocAid and a Women’s Rights specialist, born in the UK to Sierra Leonean parents. Simitie was raised in Sierra Leone until 1994 when she returned to the UK to study Law and Economics and train as a solicitor – this move enabled her to avoid the raging rebel war. In 2007, she returned to Sierra Leone. Simitie’s belief in women’s rights and fair legal representation is what drew her to work for AdvocAid in 2009 firstly as a paralegal and later as Legal Officer, where she successfully represented the country’s longest standing death row inmate. From 2012 – 2014, Simitie was the President of L.A.W.Y.E.R.S, the association of female lawyers. Under her leadership, it expanded its impact and services to women who have experienced gender based violence. She became Executive Director of AdvocAid in 2014. www.advocaidsl.com