Protecting Women's Rights throughout Covid-19

by AdvocAid
Protecting Women's Rights throughout Covid-19
Protecting Women's Rights throughout Covid-19
Protecting Women's Rights throughout Covid-19
Protecting Women's Rights throughout Covid-19
Protecting Women's Rights throughout Covid-19
Protecting Women's Rights throughout Covid-19
Protecting Women's Rights throughout Covid-19
Protecting Women's Rights throughout Covid-19
Protecting Women's Rights throughout Covid-19
Protecting Women's Rights throughout Covid-19

Thank you for helping AdvocAid to protect women's rights during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Lockdowns, curfews and restrictions on business and free movement were a serious concern for the women and girls we work with. During national lockdowns, we saw women being arrested for vital journeys such as fetching water or buying food for their families. 

Women in prison were particularly at risk, due to the confined conditions, inadequate sanitation facilities, lack of handwashing stations and protective equipment. 

AdvocAid worked hard to adapt our legal and social support during this crisis. We recognised that our provision of legal and welfare support was more vital than ever, as a health crisis should not obstruct human rights. 

Our Paralegals mediated cases at police stations to avoid them reaching court and provided legal empowerment sessions to women in prison, by phone where necessary. 

We provided critical hygiene supplies to women in prison during the COVID-19 outbreak, such as soap, laundry soap, buckets and sanitary pads. We also supported the prison treatment centre with urgent medical supplies and PPE during a COVID-19 outbreak. The prison doctor said, “Thanks to AdvocAid for their timely intervention. I just can’t imagine how we would have run the treatment centre this week without your supplies.”

In recognition of our work, AdvocAid’s Programme Manager Julie Mariama Sesay was spotlighted by the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Presidential Center for Women and Development as a "COVID-19 Heroine". They highlighted how Julie had been unafraid to put her own health at risk to serve others. 

Your donations enabled us to help women and girls, such as Isatu*. Isatu is a fourteen-year-old girl living with her parents in Freetown. During a three-day lockdown, her family ran out of water. Isatu’s mother sent her out to fetch water at a nearby community pump. 

 “I was so scared when I was arrested, I couldn’t say anything to the police.”

On her way home, she was arrested by police and detained for violating lockdown restrictions. She was so scared that she had trouble speaking when she was arrested. An AdvocAid Paralegal heard about her story soon after she was arrested. He was able to quickly intervene on her behalf and she was later released and allowed to fetch water for her family.

The pandemic is not over and we are all struggling to find ways to cope and adapt to this new reality. AdvocAid will be closing this speciifc COVID-19 project, but we will continue our core work of providing access to justice and support to women in detention as well advocating for systemic change. Thank you for all your support to AdvocAid during this challenging period. Your donations enabled us to adapt to the crisis and encouraged us to keep on with our important work.

Please do follow our work through our website, social media and newsletter. We would be so grateful for your continued support through our other GlobalGiving projects. Monthly donations in particular help us to plan in advance - please consider becoming a regular donor and an AdvocAid Ally! 

*Name changed to protect her identity 

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Thanks to your support through this project, AdvocAid has been able to deliver crtiical supplies to women in prison during the COVID-19 outbreak, such as soap, laundry soap, buckets and sanitary pads, which are critical to supporting hygenie and health whilst women are detained. 

We also supported the prison treatment centre with urgent medical supplies and PPE during a COVID-19 outbreak in the prison. The doctor told us, “Thanks to AdvocAid for their timely intervention. I just can’t imagine how we would have run the treatment centre this week without your supplies.”

In recognition of our work, our Programme Manager, Julie Mariama Sesay, was spotlighted by the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Presidential Center for Women and Development as a "COVID-19 Heroine". They highlighted how Julie had been unafraid to put her own health at risk to serve others. In an interview with the Center, Julie shares more about our work: 

"When COVID-19 was first documented in Sierra Leone in March, many people at my organization were scared about continuing our work. However, I knew that this would be the time that women and girls would need us the most, and so instead of pausing our work during the pandemic we have scaled up our operations. We have continued to campaign to protect the rights of women and girls who are detained, and are pushing for recognition that COVID-19 is a human rights crisis as well as a health crisis.

"One of the issues we faced was that women—and some men—were being arrested simply for going to collect water during lockdown periods. Due to the water crisis we are currently facing in Sierra Leone, many people don’t have access to clean water in their homes, and they have to regularly make trips to outside water sources, often traveling significant distances to do so. When strict lockdowns were enforced, many people still needed access to water, and they were forced to break lockdown rules when they left the house to fetch clean water. Often, these people ended up being detained by the police, and we worked with many of these cases, arranging to have them released. By engaging with the police on behalf of these detainees, we were able to explain that these people didn’t intend to commit a crime, but they didn’t have access to water in their homes. 

"During the pandemic we’ve also been assessing the needs of our correctional centers. None of them had isolation rooms for new arrivals, so we’ve helped to implement isolation rooms to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among the incarcerated population. We’ve also provided correctional centers and police stations with face masks, handwashing facilities, and sanitizer, not only for police and correctional officers, but for detainees as well. Overcrowding is a problem in many prisons, so the risk of COVID-19 spreading is very high.

"We also continued to monitor police stations during lockdown, and distributed welfare packs with dried food rations and other essentials to people who were being detained for long periods of time without basic supplies.

"On 16 June, Day of the African Child, AdvocAid organized an event at a juvenile detention center in Freetown. The event highlighted the need for a child-friendly justice system in Sierra Leone and the urgent imperative to protect underage detainees from COVID-19, while at the same time advocating for their legal rights."

We'll continue to do what we can to make sure that people in prison, especially women and girls, are not overlooked as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. 

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On 5 July 2021, AdvocAid staff took a week of Radical Rest. During this break, our team took leave from all work activities. Our Radical Rest aimed solely at providing time for our staff to focus on themselves. It was a time for our staff to rest and recharge.


In March 2020, Sierra Leone recorded it’s first Covid-19 case. Since then we have worked  throughout the pandemic to ensure access to justice to women and girls in Sierra Leone.We created new, innovative ways to ensure access and to continue providing legal, welfare and psychosocial support for clients in detention. Our staff worked incredibly hard to address the needs of marginalised women and girls during the Covid-19 pandemic.


Our work is enormously rewarding but it can be challenging for our staff. Responding to Covid-19 and the injustice, violence and pain experienced by the women and girls we work with requires emotional strength and resilience from our staff. The nature and importance of AdvocAid’s can also make it hard to take leave and make time for self-care.


Our staff are the heart of AdvocAid. Our first ever week of Radical Rest is one way we are delivering on our commitment, set within our 5-year strategy ‘Uman Get Rayt’, to empower our people and ensure every member of our team feels valued and recognised. In line with our feminist values, we focused on creating a collective space for staff to focus on themselves, to recharge and heal from all the ways that we are affected by our work and by the systems we are fighting to reform.


We know that when we took these much-needed moments to rest and recharge, we also created space for reflection, innovation,and creativity. We reminded ourselves of our hopes and aspirations. We drew strength from knowing we are part of a wider movement for change. We returned on the 12 July with fresh energy and ideas, ready to continue our vital work. And the feedback from our staff about taking a week of Radical Rest has been overwhelmingly positive - so we plan to make this an annual event at AdvocAid.


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Hawa* is a young Muslim woman who runs a small kiosk business. One day as she travelled into town she was stopped by the police who asked why she was not wearing a mask. She tried to explain that with a full face covering niqab there is no need for a mask as her whole face is already covered.

However, the police continued to insist that she wear a visible mask. A city council officer joined the police and removed her veil, violating her religious beliefs and causing her distress. The matter was later reported to the police but, frustrated by the denials of the perpetrators, Hawa gave up on the case. However, when AdvocAid learned of her experience, we raised the issue with the Independent Police Complaint Board (IPCB). As part of our ongoing work to strengthen police accountability, supported by OSIWA, we file police complaints both independently and on behalf of clients, and document issues such as this so that they can be investigated and disciplinary action taken where appropriate. AdvocAid also raised the matter with the National COVID-19 Emergency Response Centre (NACOVERC) as part of our advocacy work to ensure due consideration and sensitivity is given to gender, vulnerability, religious, economic and social status.

As a result, on 18th September, the government issued a revision of the Guiding Policy on the Use of Face Masks. They added a new mask wearing exemption for women wearing face coverings which fully cover their nose and mouth.

Hawa’s case illustrates how women’s rights and the right to religious practice can be infringed upon by measures that are broadly defined and applied. Using the least restrictive means to achieve the public health purpose of mask-wearing will ensure such measures are proportional to the objective of preventing and containing the spread of the virus.

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In March 2020, the Sierra Leonean government declared a 12-month long state of emergency because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting public health emergency. These measures included reducing the hours for market traders, restricting access to correctional centres, imposing lockdown periods, mandatory masks in public places, restricting travel between provinces, and a nationwide curfew.  While some of the measures have since been lifted, we have found that these measures tend to disproportionately affect the marginalised women and girls we work with.

To respond to these challenges, we have been calling on the government to reduce overcrowding by releasing pre-trial and vulnerable detainees, continued to work towards the decriminalisation of petty offences to avoid more women being incarcerated for minor offences, and we have continued delivering welfare packs to those who need it most as part of our holistic support. 

Felicia* was a mother with a new-born struggling to provide for herself and her son. With trading hours restricted by the curfew, her earnings were much reduced.  Whatever she made was spent on his care and buying a small amount of food for herself when she could afford it. 

One day Felicia went out to sell her goods before the curfew started. She did not have a mask on and was caught by a police officer who immediately arrested her. She did not have the money to buy a new mask. 

When AdvocAid arrived, Felicia was pleading with the officer:  “Officer, I beg you… I cannot buy a mask. If I do, I won’t have money for food. My body will struggle to feed my poor suckling baby”. 

AdvocAid mediated for Felicia’s immediate release and provided her with a mask so that she can comply with the mask-wearing regulations and keep safe. 

At the end of May 2020, new regulations were introduced under the State of Health Emergency making it compulsory for all citizens to wear face masks when out in public. The penalties for failure to comply are a substantial fine or a short jail sentence. 

Marginalised women, who were already struggling financially during this pandemic, were disproportionately affected as they were forced into debt to pay such fines, or faced incarceration for their inability to pay. 

We recognise the importance of face masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Using a public health approach, rather than a law enforcement approach, protects people and avoids burdening the justice system. With funding from OSIWA, AdvocAid has been working to support women and girls in contact with the law to protect their rights and help minimise their risks of contracting COVID-19. Our interventions to prevent women like Felicia from being detained helps reduce the pressure on already overcrowded detention centres and prevent uncontrollable spreads of COVID-19.

*Names have been changed to protect the individuals’ identities

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Organization Information

AdvocAid

Location: Freetown, Western Region - Sierra Leone
Website:
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Twitter: @advocaid
Project Leader:
Development Intern
Freetown, Western Region Sierra Leone

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Combined with other sources of funding, this project raised enough money to fund the outlined activities and is no longer accepting donations.
   

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