Ten years ago, at the very beginning of our existance, Saramba Kandeh started her legal internship with AdvocAid. Later she became our first ever female Duty Counsel.
Today, Saramba is a Legal and Gender Associate at Aids-Free World, but she has agreed to write this month’s blog to celebrate AdvocAid’s 10th anniversary. In the blog, she tells about some of the women she represented and why the experience she gained made her want to become a human rights lawyer.
My work with AdvocAid remains one of my most valuable experiences – both as a law student and a lawyer. I was fortunate to work with the organization from its inception in 2006. As part of a legal internship, I conducted legal education workshops for female prisoners at the Pademba Road Central Prison in Freetown. During the workshops, I listened to accused women tell their stories of how they ended up in conflict with the law. These women included domestic abuse survivors who had fought back and petty traders charged with ‘fraudulent conversion’ because they could not afford to repay their debts. Most of them committed crimes induced by poverty.
Their stories impacted me deeply and left me with a profound sense of commitment towards the protection and promotion of human rights. Although I already had an interest in human rights issues, up to that point I wasn’t entirely sure that I would opt to specialize in Human Rights Law. It was my work at AdvocAid, and the opportunity to directly interact with our criminal justice system as a law student, that helped me realize that I wanted to become a human rights lawyer.
After graduating from law school, I worked for AdvocAid as Duty Counsel. In this capacity, I represented accused women in court daily. As a young lawyer, working for AdvocAid gave me extensive court exposure representing clients at both Magistrate and High Courts. My clients included a young woman who killed her brother; a mother of five accused of arson; and a young woman who threw acid on her fiancée, among others. Although each of these crimes was clearly horrible, there was always a story to tell, to explain how the unthinkable happened. This often included mental illnesses, an often neglected reality in our legal system. Defending those cases against some of the most experienced prosecutors at the Law Officer’s Department allowed me to better understand the gaps in our criminal justice system. It enabled me to see the less noticed human side of accused persons. I learnt the way that effective advocacy works in a court room – and how important AdvocAid’s advocacy is to their clients and society.
A case I vividly remember is the one that involved a young woman accused of murdering her brother. The circumstances suggested that she likely acted in self-defense. She was so distraught after the incident that she further incriminated herself at the police station by answering questions from police officers, which she was not obliged to answer. When I met her, she was carrying an incredibly heavy burden of moral guilt and shame. She had been ostracized by her family and condemned as a criminal even before she was charged in court. It was important that she had a lawyer on her side, who could present the circumstances under which the crime took place. Thankfully, I was able to ensure that the charge was reduced to manslaughter.
This is why AdvocAid’s work is so important. It is not only trying to ensure that women are kept out of prison for bailable offences, but also that justice is done when a person is charged with a very serious offence such as murder. Everyone has the right to a proper defense counsel who will ensure that the prosecution is forced to prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt. As the saying goes, it is better that ten guilty persons go free than one innocent person suffers. AdvocAid helps ensure that no innocent woman is wrongly convicted and incarcerated.
AdvocAid is doing incredibly important work by providing free legal representation and legal education to female accused persons. Women remain one of the most vulnerable and poor groups in Sierra Leone, and oftentimes they come into conflict with the law due to poverty and systemic disempowerment. They play a vital role in holding families together, thus their incarceration affects the entire family. This is particularly true for mothers. Their incarceration has a devastating effect on their children who are often exposed to all forms of social ills. Prison experience is a very painful one, and it’s even more painful for a female prisoner who has children out there with no one to fend for them. This is why it is extremely important to ensure that women are not behind bars simply because they cannot afford a lawyer.
Persons accused of crimes have a right to adequate legal representation. Since the Sierra Leonean government is only just starting to implement a legal aid scheme that will provide access to legal representation, AdvocAid has been filling this apparent gap for the past ten years by providing free legal representation for female accused persons. Without the kind of assistance that AdvocAid provides, women accused of crimes would be largely helpless – with sole dependence on the good conscience and professionalism of police officers and prosecutors for their fate.
I am grateful for the incredible work that AdvocAid is doing in Sierra Leone, and I am proud to have been a part of its journey. I am thankful that I had the opportunity to represent accused women whose gratitude meant so much to me; it was clear our efforts had a profound and positive impact on the women’s lives. Thank you AdvocAid for that opportunity! I hope you continue to get the much-needed support that will ensure the successes of the past ten years continues well into the future.
Happy 10th Anniversary to AdvocAid!
Saramba Kandeh is a Legal and Gender Associate at Aids-Free World. She holds a Bachelor of Laws degree (LLB Hons.) from Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone, and a Master of Laws degree (LLM) in International Human Rights Law from the University of Notre Dame Law School.
As part of our 10-year anniversary celebrations, every month for 10 months, we’ll be showcasing the best of AdvocAid through guest blogs from our staff, volunteers, partners and board members.