Sabrina Mahtani is a British-Zambian lawyer who has worked on human rights projects in Sierra Leone since 2005, including the Centre for Accountability and Rule of Law and ‘Opin Yu Yi’ (‘Open Your Eyes’), the country’s first human rights film festival. She is the co-founder and executive director of AdvocAid, an organization supporting access to justice and strengthened rights for women in the criminal justice system in Sierra Leone.


Sabrina Mahtani is a British-Zambian lawyer who has worked on human rights projects in Sierra Leone since 2005, including the Centre for Accountability and Rule of Law and ‘Opin Yu Yi’ (‘Open Your Eyes’), the country’s first human rights film festival. She is the co-founder and executive director of AdvocAid, an organization supporting access to justice and strengthened rights for women in the criminal justice system in Sierra Leone.

Law in a time of Ebola

Ebola provisions

Ebola prevention items donated to Freetown Female Prison © AdvocAid

When the Ebola epidemic escalated in Sierra Leone around June 2014 we wondered if we should close down our legal aid organization, AdvocAid. Many international NGOs were evacuating their international staff and many local NGOs started to restrict their activities. We decided to continue to operate and to see how, as lawyers and paralegals, we could best respond to this national emergency. We provide legal aid and support to girls and women affected by the criminal justice system, one of the most disadvantaged groups in the country, as well as working to strengthen and reform the justice system.

In June 2014, the President issued a State of Public Emergency, leading to a ban on public gatherings and places of entertainment. Unfortunately, these measures have led to some people being arrested, so we have provided legal representation for them and encouraged family members to pay the fines levied against them.

In September 2014 the government declared a three-day ‘lock-down’ wherein people were not allowed out of their homes for three days. At 6pm on the last day, some people went out celebrating that it was over and shouting ‘Jesus’, praising God. One such group was arrested by the police, so we sent our paralegals to the police station to monitor the situation. After a few days the group, which included three women, were released.

Recently, a prominent community health officer was charged for allegedly permitting a burial without proper permission. His team of community health workers were shocked and threatened to go on strike. Even though we normally only provide services to women, our paralegal followed up on the case. We recently received the sad news that the community health officer had himself been diagnosed with Ebola and later passed away. We continued to monitor the case during this time, which was eventually dropped – some small consolation for his family.

Just this week, a woman was arrested for failure to wash her hands. There are chlorinated hand-washing buckets across Freetown these days and it is common to have to wash your hands several times a day before you enter any premises. This woman refused to wash her hands as she said she had just done so and was afraid of the effect of the chlorine. Not everyone is aware of how much chlorine to add to the water; some hand-washing points can make your hands burn or smell of chlorine all day. The woman said she was afraid of developing cancer from all the chlorine – a common fear. Our paralegal was able to advise her at the police station and contacted the woman’s family, who assisted with paying her fine.

It is a difficult time for Sierra Leone. These laws are put in place to try to halt this tragic epidemic as quickly as possible. We recognize and value this, but also want to make sure that we play a role in monitoring the current State of Emergency and ensuring that it is enforced in a proportionate way that respects people’s rights. It is easy for law-enforcement officers to assume that rights are done away with and that anything can be done just because we are under a State of Emergency.

The Ebola epidemic has impacted all areas of life in Sierra Leone and has had a significant impact on the justice system. The courts have scaled down the number of hearings per day and adjournments can be lengthy. Many magistrates and lawyers have left the country. Others cannot return from abroad due to flight cancellations caused by the epidemic. Still others cannot attend court because of the quarantines. So women may spend much longer in pre-trial detention than usual, which negatively impacts on their families: women are the main caregivers and often the main income-earners. Many women have young children in prison with them. So we try very hard to ensure our clients get bail.  

We have supported the prisons we work in with Ebola-prevention materials – chlorine, rubber buckets, disinfectant materials and disposable gloves. Thankfully there has been no reported case of Ebola in the female prisons and we pray it continues that way. However, there was a scare recently when one of our paralegals reported a suspect in a police station who was thought to have Ebola. Ebola in prisons is a risk, with prison officers being exposed in the communities they live in and a regularly changing prison population. With government funds diverted to the Ebola response, prisons are in need of urgent support.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, issued in 2005, speaks about the failure of justice in the lead-up to and during the 1991-2002 civil war. It criticized lawyers for not sufficiently standing up against the violation of rights, and highlighted the lack of access of most people to the courts. We want to make sure that, when we reflect upon the Ebola crisis, that same charge is not levied against us. We look forward to seeing a stronger and more prosperous Sierra Leone, when this epidemic is over. And that future can only be built upon a solid human rights foundation.

We have started a series of Law in the Time of Ebola blog posts which you can find on our website:

By Simitie Lavaly and Sabrina Mahtani of AdvocAid.

Women will lose out in Sierra Leone election

More women in leadership would advance equality in Sierra Leone. Photo: babasteve, under a CC License.

As the euphoria over the US elections settles, another vote (far less in the media spotlight) is taking place. On 17 November, Sierra Leone will hold its third multi-party election since the end of the civil war, 10 years ago.

While we wait to see how fair and free these elections will be, what is already certain is that Sierra Leonean women will be far less well-represented than men, due to the failure in passing the proposed Gender Equality Bill before the election. Women make up 52 per cent of the population but, at the close of Parliament, only 13 per cent of its members were women. They also make up less than 10 per cent of top civil service positions.

Had the Gender Equality Bill been passed, it would have mandated that there be 30-per-cent representation of women in the legislature. In this week’s election, even if all the female candidates are elected, which appears unlikely, women would only make up 6.5 per cent of parliament.

The decreasing presence of women in the country’s legislature is likely to have an adverse impact on the advancement of women’s rights in Sierra Leone. UN Women recommend using quotas to make justice systems work better for women. Of the 28 countries that have reached or exceeded the 30-per-cent critical mass mark in national parliaments, at least 23 have used some form of quota. In countries such as Rwanda, Costa Rica and Tanzania, progressive laws advancing women’s rights have swiftly followed a quota-based increase in women’s parliamentary representation.

There is valid debate around the use of quotas. It is clear that such quotas need to be combined with social and cultural change in order to have significant impact. However, they are often seen as an important first step. The Convention Eliminating All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which Sierra Leone ratified in 1988, mandates the use of temporary special measures, such as quotas, to increase representation of women in decision-making at all levels.

Parliament’s failure to pass the Gender Equality Act before its close has led to some criticism of woman parliamentarians themselves. The passage of the Bill was stymied by splits along party lines, which the female parliamentarians could have tackled through a show of unity. However, the blame cannot be placed solely on their shoulders; it is not only women who are responsible for the safeguarding of their rights and for ensuring proper parliamentary representation. It is clear that there was minimal political will on behalf of male parliamentarians, and some activists believe that the women were ‘set up to fail’. The women’s movement had pressed for the Gender Equality Bill to be pushed through as a government bill, through a certificate of urgency, but this did not happen – although eight other bills were pushed through before the close of parliament. Beyond the Bill, high registration fees, intimidation and a legacy of electoral violence all contributed to fewer women standing for parliament in the election this week.

Sierra Leone’s politicians have failed to see equal political participation as a human rights and development issue, rather than a ‘women’s rights’ issue. In 2005, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission made an imperative recommendation that all political parties should be required to ensure that at least 30 per cent of their candidates for all public elections are women.

The battle for greater political participation has been ongoing for over a decade. Activists have worked tirelessly to establish and lead the Women’s Situation Room, to mobilize for peaceful elections and involve women in peace advocacy, political analysis, observation and documentation. 2012 also marks the 15th anniversary of Femmes Africa Solidarité (FAS), an organization of women from across Africa promoting the role of women in peace-building and decision-making. They will be monitoring the election and promoting peace. The women’s movement, of which I have been privileged to be a part, is vibrant, determined and can no longer be ignored. Their legacy has already been created as, prior to the war, not one female candidate had won an electoral seat.

Following the current elections, the women’s movement will undoubtedly regroup and push once more to ensure that the Gender Equality bill is passed, but this will detract significant time and resources away from other critical issues facing women, particularly marginalized women, such as those who are incarcerated, or who are from rural areas.

The newly elected government, international donors and civil society all have a role in ensuring that this bill is passed urgently, in order to strengthen Sierra Leone’s future development.

For more information, watch the short documentary, 30%: Women and Politics in Sierra Leone.

Sierra Leone beyond Charles Taylor

As the world hails the ex-Liberian President’s 50-year sentence for civil war atrocities, Sabrina Mahtani hopes the judgment will not detract from the root causes of the conflict.

The Taylor judgment is, undoubtedly, an important step forward for international criminal justice. However, the excessive media coverage must not allow us to forget that Charles Taylor was not the cause of the devastating 11-year conflict in Sierra Leone.

Critics argue that the Special Court for Sierra Leone  – jointly set up by the United Nations and the Sierra Leone government – overshadowed the findings and recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The TRC was established in 2000 specifically to examine Sierra Leone’s past – to determine the root causes of the conflict and the role of the different factions. It was also tasked with making recommendations as to how war-torn Sierra Leone could be rebuilt and how such human rights violations could be prevented.

The TRC’s mandate was far wider than that of the Special Court. Its records contain thousands of Sierra Leonean voices unrestricted by the rules of evidence imposed by courts of law. Many argue that its historical narrative is a more accurate reflection of the events leading up to and during Sierra Leone’s conflict.

The TRC’s final report in 2004 outlined many of the causes of the civil war, such as unemployment, corruption, failures in governance and lack of access to key services. Among its primary findings was that ‘the central cause of the war was endemic greed, corruption and nepotism that deprived the nation of its dignity and reduced most people to a state of poverty... Government accountability was non-existent. Institutions meant to uphold human rights, such as the courts and civil society, were thoroughly co-opted by the executive.’

It also held that ‘many of the causes of the conflict that prompted thousands of young people to join the war have still not been adequately addressed. High among these factors are elitist politics, rampant corruption, nepotism, and bad governance in general.’

Having worked in human rights projects in Sierra Leone for the past six years, I have personally witnessed many of these factors, including corruption, difficulties accessing justice, lack of educational opportunities and economic empowerment for young people, particularly women.

The TRC particularly noted the devastating impact of the war on girls and women and the structural inequality they still face. 

Positive steps have been made, such as the passing of three Gender Acts which enhance legal protection for women and, just a few weeks ago, a new Legal Aid Act.There are new institutions, such as the Anti-Corruption Commission, Human Rights Commission and Youth Commission. And free healthcare for pregnant women, nursing mothers and children under five was introduced in 2010.

However, Sierra Leone still faces many challenges. Two-thirds of the population subsist on less than $1.25 a day. Years of corruption and lack of key services have resulted in huge youth employment with about 14 per cent of the population without a job or working for no remuneration. Unemployed young men are often co-opted by political parties and were responsible for most of the election violence during the 2007 polls. It is feared that the upcoming elections in November 2012 will be similarly violent.

Foreign corporations have started to take advantage of the country’s rich mineral resources and there are concerns about how best to ensure that the extractive industries do not damage the environment and that they bring some benefit to the wider population. Just last month police shot dead a woman during a strike against poor working conditions by staff at African Minerals, one of the leading international mining companies.

Ten years after the end of the war, donors are now focusing on other countries more in the media spotlight, with Sierra Leone’s transition seen as well under way and with millions of dollars already spent on the Special Court.

A local journalist told me recently that he fears the conviction of Charles Taylor will mask the need for all Sierra Leoneans to continue to examine the causes of the conflict and to ensure that they are addressed. Sierra Leone’s future depends upon all the recommendations of the TRC being implemented and upon international support being maintained – and the Taylor judgment should not overshadow that.

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