AdvocAid is a feminist organization providing holistic access to justice, legal representation, legal empowerment and post-detention support to women and girls who come into contact with the law in Sierra Leone. The women and girls AdvocAid works with include the most vulnerable and marginalized women, including sex workers, women working in the informal economy, survivors of abuse, and juveniles.
With this background in mind, this case study focuses on women’s incarceration in Sierra Leone and how women’s rights can be improved using feminist advocacy. This advocacy is a priority area of AdvocAid’s core work. In 2021, AdvocAid published a study called Woman Wahala Na Prison, which highlighted how little is known about not only the pathways that lead to women’s incarceration in Sierra Leone, but also the consequences of incarceration. Among other important findings, the study found that many of the women with lived experiences of incarceration were incarcerated for petty offenses in their capacity as petty traders and breadwinners of their families.
In Sierra Leone, petty offense laws such as loitering and non-payment of debt, are existent, vague and wrongly applied. The enforcement of these laws – arrests and imprisonment – largely targets and disproportionately affects marginalized people in the community, who are most often women, those living in poverty, unemployed, and/or homeless. These laws disproportionately impact women due to their prominent role in petty trading and commercial sex work. With support from OSIWA, AdvocAid in partnership with Center for Accountability and the Rule of Law (CARL) is implementing a petty offenses project called Decriminalising and Declassifying of Petty Offences in Sierra Leone. To do this, we are employing different strategies including strategic litigation, advocacy, and engagements with policy and decision makers.
On 2nd November, 2022, AdvocAid and CARL held a visitation at the Freetown Female Correctional Center with the objective of ensuring decision makers interact with incarcerated women who are either on trial or have been convicted of petty offenses.
The importance of this visitation was that it created a space for the incarcerated women who had been victimized by these laws to share their experiences with policy and decision makers so that they can understand the extent to which these laws have affected them. AdvocAid is a feminist organization, and part of working in a feminist way means making sure that women with lived experiences of incarceration are not only involved in the organization’s work, but lead it. So this project prioritizes creating access to advocacy spaces for these women.
In order for incarcerated women to meaningfully participate as self-advocates, building their capacities to dialogue with policy and decision makers was also prioritized so that they not only understood the ripple effect of consequences of their arrest for a petty offense but also proposed alternatives that can address the identified challenges. Feminist advocacy requires that advocacy is informed by the experiences of those most affected by the existing injustices and inequalities.
So is there a Feminist way to do Advocacy? The answer is definitely yes! So what exactly is feminist advocacy and why do we need feminist advocacy? According to the Advocacy Accelerator, Feminist Advocacy refers to what and how we advocate for social, economic and political equality. The ‘what’ we advocate for may be known as AdvocAid is obviously raising awareness on the need to decriminalize and declassify petty offenses in Sierra Leone. It is the ‘how’ that is usually trivialized. We’re here to show that the process is equally as important as the outcome.
In a publication titled An Advocacy Guide for Feminists, Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) highlights what doing advocacy in a feminist way is and what it seeks to do. According to AWID, doing advocacy in a feminist way implies “our advocacy being informed by our feminist values to advance women’s rights and address the effects of policies/laws on the lives of women around the world.”
Being a feminist myself I am aware of how lobbying spaces exclude those most affected. A dialogue like this is an example of a self-advocacy platform that is informed by the experiences of those most affected. For if organizations are to amplify the voices of those that are systematically marginalized in our communities, then creating, expanding, protecting and promoting safe spaces for marginalized people to share their experiences and interact directly with those that make decisions that affect them should be a priority for all.
Our key takeaways from this advocacy approach that we’d like to share with others include:
- Having policy makers and decision makers visit the correctional center to listen to the incarcerated women not only ensures these women have the ability to self-advocate for themselves, but also humanizes the impact of legislation, creating more of a sense of urgency amongst policy makers and decision makers .
- A practice like this empowers those that are marginalized – it documents and archives their active participation in the lobbying process for the law reform they desire to see.
I encourage more organizations to adopt such feminist advocacy practices for the different projects they are implementing if we are to work towards an inclusive policy reform process.
If you’d like to learn more about AdvocAid and support our work please visit www.advocaidsl.org‘. AdvocAid has also launched the Feminist Claudia Wright Scholarship to build the next generation of feminist lawyers in Sierra Leone.
By Rebecca M Kabejja, Advocacy Specialist for AdvocAid Sierra Leone