By Laura Angela Bagnetto
In Sierra Leone – poverty, domestic violence and limited education are the primary reasons why women find themselves behind bars, according to a new study carried out in the West African country by two legal advocate organisations.
“Sierra Leone must… recognize in law, policy and practice, that these are pathways, conditions and consequences of women’s imprisonment and constitute a form of discrimination– in breach of Sierra Leone’s international obligations,” according to the report Woman Wahala na Prison, by the Cyrus R. Vance Centre for International Justice (CRVC).
Many women, who are small-time traders and primary caretakers of their children, commit petty larceny, such as stealing small sums of money, to take care of their children.
“Very often, these were survival type of crimes,” says Isabella Cordua, author of the report and researcher at CRVC, an organization that works with lawyers and civil society groups on ethics and rights.
“Perhaps these women stole small amounts of money to provide for themselves and their children, and then had ended up in prison, and others had taken a small loan from a friend for business purposes and then possibly used it for unforeseen expenses,” she adds, speaking of how the women ended up in prison.
The study was conducted with 86 percent of all women in prison in Sierra Leone, who are either waiting to be charged, or who are serving time.
It also interviewed correctional officers, family members, judges and civil society organisations, in order to understand the patterns and issues faced by women in prison.
Culture and discrimination
One aspect that affects the lives of Sierra Leonean women, whether they are in prison or not, is the amount of domestic violence they suffer, according to the report.
This is often linked to cultural standards and responsibilities, says Jalahan Amara, Freetown-based programmes officer for AdvocAid, a legal Sierra Leone-based advocacy group that supports women in prison, who helped produce the report.
“A lot of women are survivors of violence because there is this culture of families not accepting women challenging mistreatment by their husbands,” says Amara.
The family “expects you to be at the brunt of the pain, even if you are molested, if you are abused in any shape or form, you are expected to not make it public, let alone report it to the police,” she adds.
Former female inmates who were interviewed for the study explained that “physical abuse is understood by many as a demonstration of passion and a normal response to a wife’s perceived misbehaviour,” according to the report, and can be viewed as a wife’s failure to be a ‘good wife’ especially in failing to perform what could be seen as her sexual duties.
Stigma in society
While there is the Sexual Offenses Act 2012 on the books that states marriage is not a defense to rape charges, it is contrary to customary law, “under which a woman cannot deny her husband sex,” according to the report.
Most women are not aware of their rights, and believe this mistreatment is a normal thing–nearly three-quarters of the women in prison have suffered from domestic violence, but the report estimates that the number could be higher.
“You’ll see a husband not taking care of his children and this woman stays on in the marriage continually trying to suppress this suffering,” says Amara, until the woman cannot take the abuse anymore and attacks, or even stabs her husband. She injures the husband, or even kills him, resulting in her arrest.
“Often people don’t get to know the story, they’ll just talk about the results,” says Amara, adding that this adds to the woman’s stigma and problems once, and if, she is released from prison.
Although the police force has a ‘family support unit’, it is people’s inherent attitude and beliefs that come into play when investigating cases, Amara tells RFI.
In many instances, “the police will keep referring them to go back home and settle with their husband,” says Amara. “‘Just go home and wait, and just make sure you settle with your man, he is your husband,'” is a usual refrain from the police, but it exemplifies the lack of structure in dealing with the situation.
This is also an issue as to how the police handle domestic violence situations. Cordua says that she could not forget the story of the woman who got pregnant at 14 years of age, and was forced by her family to get married so she would not have a child out of wedlock.
The victim’s husband emotionally, financially and sexually abused her. Although she continually went to the police regarding her husband, they did not react until he attacked his wife by squeezing her throat. She stabbed him, and he died. She is serving a long prison sentence for his death.
Lack of education holds women back
In Sierra Leone, although education is free, it remains inaccessible for many, especially women. Women who take on microloans or loans with high interest rates cannot read or understand the repayment plans, and are then reported to the police and arrested.
“Some can’t even sign their name,” says Amara, as some women do not speak English, or Krio, only the local language of their community. This is further compounded when the police take the woman’s statement after she is arrested. The police are supposed to read the statement back to the suspect before signing, but tell her, ‘just thumbprint’.
“When you give your thumbprint, you have confirmed that whatever they have written on the investigation sheet is actually representative of what happened, which leads many women to prison,” says Amara. “Because they’re illiterate.”
Some 54 percent of women in prison are illiterate, according to the report.
The report indicates that many women felt they were ‘tricked’ by the criminal justice system, because they were not allowed to explain themselves in court or said they pleaded guilty because the police told them they would be freed if they did so.
Many of the jurors are predominantly retired male civil servants, and there are few interpreters to help the suspects.
Children going hungry
Many of the children of the women in prison are taken care of by extended family members, in few cases by their fathers. And as women are the main source of income, it affects the whole family.
“When a woman who is a breadwinner is locked behind bars, it’s obvious that those children are not going to get care,” says Amara. “In fact, even the husbands are affected by the incarceration of the woman.”
A typical pattern is that the older children will have to take care of the younger ones, which leads them to drop out of school, or start as a sex worker just to find food, she says.
“That is just the harsh truth of this research,” she adds.
Stuck in limbo
Some 62 percent of the women interviewed were languishing in jail in pre-trial detention, an internationally-recognized method of last resort. CRVC’s Cordua says that some women had spent 1,000 days in prison awaiting trial, while the average in Sierra Leone is 427 days in prison awaiting trial.
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After being held, the person must be released or charged, and the police have the power to grant bail.
“According to the Legal Aid Board, these powers are often abused by police who solicit bribes from those who have been arrested,” according to the report. The women in prison who were interviewed did not know that bail is free in Sierra Leone, and were led to believe that there is a fee to pay.
Sierra Leonean domestic law says that courts must grant bail to all suspects except those who are accused of murder or treason.
In one positive effort made regarding cases, the Bail Regulations law, passed in 2018, states the court must take into account whether the defendant is pregnant, a lactating mother, or primary caregiver.
If petty larceny, loitering, obtaining goods or money by false pretenses and other small crimes are decriminalized, according to the report, that would avoid overcrowding in prisons, which is currently an acute worry due to Covid-19.
Better training is also imperative, according to the report, including training for courts to deal with and provide interpreters so the woman can understand what is going on in court.
AdvocAid’s Amara says that while these issues are not limited to Sierra Leone, the situation seems to be far worse here.
“We don’t have safe houses for women, and we need to continually engage the judiciary, the prison officers,” says Amara. “Because obviously we need legal reform, investments into the justice system, and even in the detention facilities,” she says.