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A good news story for International Women’s Day

As the world celebrates the centenary of International Women’s Day on 8 March 2011, it’s also going to be a day of quiet jubilation for women in Sierra Leone. The longest-serving female prisoner on death row has been released after spending eight years behind bars, six of those waiting to be executed. The death penalty is still legal here.

Women prisoners in Sierra Leone, courtesy AdvocAid Sierra Leone

I am not allowed to reveal her name so I’ll call her Aminata. Aminata is now in her thirties and was sentenced to death six years ago. The charge was murder, killing the child of her husband’s other wife. I met up with Sabrina Mahtani, executive director of AdvocAid, a small Sierra Leonean NGO that provides legal aid, education and reintegration services to women prisoners. Mahtani says that Aminata confessed to the crime on her husband’s advice and although there was no evidence to prove her guilt, this was enough for the judge. Aminata is originally from Makeni, the northern capital. ‘Often in the provinces, women who are illiterate don’t understand the law and end up incriminating themselves by mistake or on bad advice,’ says Mahtani, who started AdvocAid in 2006. Her group took up Aminata’s case and began to dig up her case files in order to put together an appeal. Because of poor record-keeping, this was a challenge. Finally last week, a judge ruled that there had been too many irregularities in her prosecution and she had already served eight years in prison, so would not be retried.

For Mahtani, the next step after the victory is to help Aminata go home. ‘We give women start up money to travel, start businesses and carry on with their lives,’ she says. Many of the women serving at the Pademba Road prison in Freetown are from provincial Sierra Leone and find themselves in an unfamiliar place once released.

We’re talking about around 150 women prisoners in Sierra Leone, which seems like a small number. Often however, they are the breadwinners and sole care-givers in their families and this impacts many more dependants. In the eight years Aminata was in prison, her baby girl never visited. ‘There’s stigma around being in prison, and her family just couldn’t afford to bring her child to Freetown,’ says Mahtani.

Many women give birth in prison and continue to live with their children. Sierra Leone introduced a free healthcare scheme last year for pregnant women, lactating mothers and children under five but these benefits remain elusive for women prisoners. Mahtani laments that there’s one GP for about 1,400 inmates in the central prison in Freetown.

Through their literacy work, AdvocAid are also trying to help women understand their rights. Most of the prosecutions are for petty crimes like small theft and debt. For these, women who can’t pay the fine end up spending almost a decade behind bars.

Mahtani is worried about Aminata being accepted back in her community and that is one of the reasons her identity has been kept secret. The good news is that after eight years, this International Women’s Day will finally mean something to her.

 PHOTO: Women prisoners in Makeni. Photo reproduced courtesy AdvocAid Sierra Leone.

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