While the whole world is reeling from the global COVID-19 health crisis, we are having to adapt our work in light of new restrictions across Sierra Leone. Drawing from lessons learned from our work during the Ebola outbreak , AdvocAid is working hard to develop new ways to ensure our continued support to women and girls in contact with the law.
Adapting our Legal and Social Support
To protect prison populations, almost all correctional facilities across the country have restricted any form of outside access. This posed particular difficulties to our Paralegals and Social Workers as much of their wok consists of entering the various prisons on a weekly basis. So, our team had to think of alternative, innovative ways to continue their legal and psycho-social support for women in detention. For much of this, we can build on good relationships with the Sierra Leone Police and the Sierra Leone Correctional Services. Here is how we have been adapting our strategies:
- Instead of personally going to the correctional centres, AdvocAid’s paralegals now hand out forms for detainees and prison staff to fill out. Through these forms we find out our clients most urgent needs and plan needed interventions.
- Our Social Workers regularly call the different Correctional Centre Managers to inquire about the women’s welfare needs.
- Legal empowerment sessions, in which knowledge about pre-trial and arrest rights is being passed on by our Paralegals, are being held via phone.
- Via regular phone calls, our staff find out about any new and ongoing cases in the remand homes and approved schools (correctional facilities for juvenile suspects and detainees).
- During police station monitoring trips – which are not restricted – our Social Workers and Paralegals ensure social distancing guidelines are being followed and always wear face masks.
- Whether it be clients at the correctional centres or police stations, we make sure to verify and cross-check any information given as good as we can. If, for example, a woman has been granted bail, we follow-up whether she actually got released.
Engaging Police Forces to Consider Alternative Measures
Already before the outbreak of the coronavirus and the related new restrictions, prison overcrowding was an issue we have been highlighting. In addition to calling on the Government of Sierra Leone to release vulnerable prisoners , we are actively engaging the station sergeants to ensure the use of non-custodial measures. With this, the risk of suspects and police officers as well as the communities contracting the virus shall be reduced.
Monitoring during Lockdowns
We are happy to say that all our three teams in Freetown, Kenema and Makeni were granted to monitor police stations during the nation’s last lockdown and also received passes to carry out their work during the current lockdown. Due to our interventions, various women as well as men that had been arrested for minor offences were released. During April’s lockdown, for instance, AdvocAid’s Paralegal Ayo successfully mediated a case of a woman that had breached lockdown rules:
“The woman went not far from her house to buy bread for herself, her family and some neighbors. She was arrested by the police and brought to the nearby police station. Luckily, the incident happened in my area so I was informed and immediately made my way to the police stations. After just a few minutes, I was able to convince the police and the woman got released and brought back to her house.”
Cases like this show how essential it is for us to provide legal aid during these exceptional times. Around the world, women are suffering more from the pandemic’s social and economic fallout. This is particularly worrying, considering the fact that many are the family’s primary care-giver.
Though our resources are restricted, we also managed to distribute face masks and food items to particularly vulnerable women and girls.
As many women and girls do not have sufficient access to water and the facilities to wash their hands the right way, AdvocAid made ad-hoc donations of Veronica buckets (portable hand-washing stations), soap and hand sanitizers. Our Paralegals and Social Workers identified police stations and particularly vulnerable communities (e.g. groups of market women) that were most in need and donated the equipment. To Correctional Centres, we managed to give donations of urgently needed welfare items such as soap and sanitary pads.
As the crisis will most likely worsen, we are committed to continue to develop new and creative ways and adapt our strategies to whatever circumstances we may find ourselves in.