The externs in professional mode

Saturday, 31 March 2012

Voice, Protection and Opportunity: Reflections from AdvocAid at the end of International Women’s Month 20122

 March is now known as Women’s Month due to the commemoration of International Women’s Day on 8 March. However, the discussion concerning women’s rights needs to be one we continue throughout the year and not just one day a year.  In order to continue to celebrate Sierra Leonean women’s many strengths throughout the year, and highlight areas for reform, AdvocAid is giving young women we work with a space to share their thoughts and dreams for their fellow sisters.
AdvocAid is a civil society organisation that supports access to justice, education and reintegration for women and their children in detention in Sierra Leone. We work with women lawyers, law students, paralegals, teachers, activists and social workers to support women in prison access and exercise their legal rights. As part of its legal aid work, offering free legal advice and representation to women in conflict with the law, AdvocAid runs a legal aid externship clinic with six law students from Fourah Bay College. This is part of our strategic capacity building initiatives supporting the new generation of human rights lawyers in Sierra Leone. 

Ten Things That Make Me Most Angry About Being a Woman in Sierra Leone
Wilbri John (Extern, Legal Aid Externship Programme, placed with LAWYERS)

  1. Many women in Sierra Leone are raised with very low self-esteem
  2. Many women in Sierra Leone are raised to feel that they are inferior to men
  3.  Many men in Sierra Leone see women as “tools” rather than people with feelings
  4. Many women are beaten regularly and not much is done to protect them
  5. Many women are raised to believe that the most important thing is getting married and not much importance is laid on the importance of education and having a career
  6. Many women are not given the opportunity to make choices. Most of the years of their lives are spent from their father’s house to their husband’s house and their fathers and then husbands make the decisions for them.
  7. Most house owners are prejudiced to single women trying to rent a house and this makes it difficult for them to stand on their own two feet, without depending on men.
  8. Society and some cultural and religious beliefs remind women each day that they should be submissive to men. As many women are illiterate, they hold on to these beliefs.
  9. Many women are illiterate and do not have access to the same educational opportunities as men.
  10. What makes me most angry is when women, especially the educated women, accept all the bad things done to them because they worry about what society will think or them.

If I was in Government, the Things I would Change:

  1. I would make education for girls mandatory and make sure that families abide by this law.
  2.  I would organise legal education outreach programmes for women in order to empower them.
  3. I would organise legal education campaigns for men so that they are more aware about the laws protecting women.
  4. I would organise career days at schools to inform girls that they have more options for their future than just marriage.
  5. I would create a social service with a special division that focuses on the girl child to ensure they are well treated in schools, homes and communities.

What I really want to share with girls and women in Sierra Leone is to speak up and make reports when awful things are being done to you either in your schools, communities or homes. The most important thing is for you to be happy and healthy. It does not matter what other people think.

How I am helping the Women of Sierra Leone

Through AdvocAid's Externship program I have been able to personally make a difference in the lives of women in our justice system. Primarily I travel to the courts in search of female victims who are without representation, and attempt to collect as many details about their case as I can from the court personnel. 

This can takes hours of waiting and questioning law court officials, as the courts are a very busy place and it can be difficult to get the information I need. Once I have the details of the case I ensure that at the next court date the victims of the crime have someone to help represent their side of events and fight for their rights.

Colleagues of mine conduct a similar process at the police station. Here they must negotiate and plead with the policemen to get the details of unrepresented women detained in the police station. These women are often just as vulnerable as the victims of crime, and ensuring that they have legal representation during court protects them and their families.

I am also given the chance to interview victims that approach our legal aid services directly. I help these women establish their cases and open court files to begin the lengthy court process as soon as possible. I admire the courage of these women, and I enjoy being able to begin the process that will give them closure and uphold their human rights.

The final important aspect of my externship experience is legal education. Myself and my colleagues have visited schools and prisons to educate people about their legal rights. Everyone should know about bail, the court system and the rights of people in jail - not just lawyers. We visit these places to ensure that people know their right to silence, know not to plead guilty without details of the crime, know their right to representation and more. We hope that these messages get passed on through the community, helping women and children safeguard their rights.

Overall, the experience I have received from the externship program has taught me valuable lessons about justice and the legal system that I could not learn in a classroom.   It has helped me realize that I want to pursue cases supporting women's rights and unrepresented women when I finish university.

Hawantu Kamara (Extern, Legal Aid Externship Programme, placed with AdvocAid)

A lot of women in Sierra Leone are influenced by their family. Most homes are dominated by men. If a woman is born into such a home, where her whole life has been decided by her father, brothers or uncles it is only inevitable that she develops the idea that that is the way life is supposed to be and that a man is more superior.

Schools and universities also contribute to the inferiority ideology paramount in this country. These institutions tend to orient women to be submissive. There is no reason why a female student should be inferior to a male student. If a female student scores high marks in an examination, male students will often say it is because she is dating the lecturers or teachers but if it is a male student who scores a high mark it is because he genuinely deserves it. This is very unfair. We have many intelligent female students in schools and colleges.

Women have allowed themselves to be so subdued that even if they want to speak out now they find it very difficult. But this should not deter us as a journey starts with the first step.
It could be a great step if the prominent women in this country organise empowerment programmes to encourage women to stand up for their rights.

Alison Thompson (AdvocAid Board Member)

I want women everywhere in the world, and especially in Sierra Leone, to take a moment and reflect on their shared strength and resiliency. By reflecting on this strength, we have an opportunity to re-commit to increasing it for ourselves and for others. We can re-commit to making our voices heard, to ensuring equal treatment and the protection of our rights and to being able to fully participate in the richness of economic, social and political life. And we can re-commit to making this possible for every woman, whoever and wherever she may be.  Voice, protection and opportunity for every woman are what I am dreaming about this International Women’s Day and the days following.

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