I’m pleased to announce that in June 2014, Simitie Lavaly took over as Executive Director of AdvocAid. I have continued to work with Simitie and our Senior Management over these past few months to support this transition and complete some projects I have been leading, such as the launch of our “Bail Is Free” Legal Education campaign. I am not leaving AdvocAid but just taking on a new role, and I’m excited to eventually be part of the Board of Directors and to continue to support AdvocAid’s strategic vision.
It is a happy and proud moment for me to see AdvocAid continue to grow and there is no one I would trust more to continue our work than Simitie. Simitie started working with us in 2009 as a law student and her dedication and ability soon saw her rise to Legal Officer and then Deputy Director. Simitie is not just capable but fiercely passionate about the rights of girls and women in conflict with the law, who are often overlooked and neglected. She has defended many women on death row and through her hard work and commitment seen over 4 women on death row released. She has high standing in the women’s movement and in 2012 was appointed as President of L.A.W.Y.E.R.S (the female lawyers association). Under her leadership, L.A.W.Y.E.R.S expanded its impact and services to women who have experienced gender based violence. I am confident that Simitie will continue and develop AdvocAid’s vision as well as our role within the wider women’s movement in Sierra Leone and internationally.
Photo: Simitie & Sabrina taking part in a legal education radio programme on SLBC
On 1 July 2005, I first came to Sierra Leone and my relationship with this beautiful country began. I was working on a research project on the death penalty with, LAWCLA, and the Centre for Capital Punishment Studies. After a month of jumping bureaucratic hurdles, Mr Showers (the former Director of Prisons) supported my access to Pademba Road Prison. He stated that he knew the prisons were in bad shape, there was nothing to hide and more to be gained through open dialogue and working with organisations. I am eternally grateful for Mr Showers’ support and reformist thinking that enabled our work in those early days. Collecting the stories of prisoners on death row and meeting women who had been in prison for years without going to court convinced me that more needed to be done for women, and their young children, forgotten behind prison walls.
We co-founded AdvocAid in 2006. 4 women working at the Special Court for Sierra Leone could not ignore the lack of services to women in Pademba Road Prison, built in 1914, just across the road from the newly built UN War Crimes Tribunal. AdvocAid’s story shows that great change can come from small beginnings. We started through teaching a literacy class once a week for female prisoners and welfare support. Later, we managed to obtain some funding and hired lawyers. We spent hours tracing families. When women were released, we started a post-prison support programme. AdvocAid has always created its programmes based on the needs we saw and informed by the women we support.
From that small start, AdvocAid has now grown into an organization that works in 8 towns across the country. We are the only organization that provides full legal representation for women in conflict with the law. In most instances, we are the only legal aid service available. We have also developed innovative legal education programmes, acknowledging that rights cannot be enforced unless there is knowledge of those rights. We launched the first legal education TV drama, Police Case, and the first legal education music video filmed in Freetown Female Prison, Nar Yu Right. Crucially, we have created more visibility and attention to the needs of women in prison, in Sierra Leone and across the world.
Over our years of work, AdvocAid has seen and contributed to change. The Government has announced its plans to abolish the death penalty. A new Legal Aid Act has been passed. There are now 2 separate detention facilities for women.. However, much still needs to be done.
None of the above could have been possible without our supporters. Thank you to Logan, Leigh and Ali (AdvocAid Co-Founders) for your dedication, time and investment despite busy schedules and distances. You have sown a great legacy. Thank you to the AdvocAid “fambul” (we always say we are a family and not just an organisation) for your hard work and perseverance. Many of you could be working in higher paid jobs with better conditions but each day you make a choice to make someone else’s life better. Thank you to our donors who supported us and believed in us, though our work is unconventional. Thank you to Mr Bilor (Director of Prisons), and Staff of the Sierra Leone Prison Service, Inspector General Munu and the Sierra Leone Police and Mrs Sarkodie-Mensah (Master and Registrar) and the Judiciary for their support and collaboration.
A personal thank you to the human rights movement in Sierra Leone who openly embraced this British-Zambian lawyer, gave me space to work alongside you and learn from you and strengthened me as an activist. Finally, a special thank you to my family and friends (too numerous to mention) who have supported me and AdvocAid’s vision, donated time and money and were patient and loving during stressful times. Particular thanks to my parents and Idriss Kpange
Mama Salone, thank you for being my 3rd home. I will continue to work to ensure that “Salone dae go bifo!”. I will continue to work for the rights of women in conflict with the law and their children across our continent. As the child of an ex political prisoner, this work is a personal mission as much as a professional calling.
A good leader knows how to lead. A great leader knows when to leave. Simitie, I wish you much wisdom and strength as you take on this new role and look forward to supporting you, working with you and seeing AdvocAid flourish as you continue our work and build future generations of leaders.
Photo: Sabrina & Simitie with the late Catherine Martyn, the longest practicing female lawyer, in Kenema High Court Registry Office
Message from Simitie Lavaly, Incoming Executive Director
Thank you very much Sabrina for the glowing introduction and the much needed prayer. It is indeed exciting times at AdvocAid and we will certainly miss you very much. AdvocAid has been able to grow to its current heights as a result of your resilience and dedication to the cause of women in conflict with the law. May you thrive in your next endeavour and we look forward to having you as a member of the AdvocAid Board.
For our donors, civil society activists and government partners, AdvocAid will continue as before and we hope you will continue to support us accordingly. We are currently implementing a 2 year “Justice Matters” project with funding from the EU and our other donors ASJP, Mama Cash and Open Society Women’s Initiative. We have expanded our areas of work from Freetown, Makeni, Port Loko, Waterloo, Masiaka & Kenema to now include Bo, Taiama, Kono, Moyamba & Magburaka. We look forward to opening our new regional office in Kenema next year. Our contracted duty lawyers and paralegals continue to provide pro bono legal aid in their areas of operation and our social worker co-ordinates the welfare support to prisoners, and post-prison and rehabilitation support to ex-prisoners. Under my leadership we will improve upon our legal aid provision and work with stakeholders and the Law Reform Commission to look at some of the criminal justice issues that particularly affect women in conflict with the law, more particularly the issue of debt and the public order offence of loitering.
It has been a challenging time in Sierra Leone with the Ebola epidemic. However, AdvocAid is continuing its work and ensuring that vulnerable groups, such as women in prison and sex workers, are not forgotten.
I look forward to meeting with many of you in the coming months in my new capacity and seeing how together we can improve on the wellbeing of women in conflict with the law and their children. I thank our current donors for their support of AdvocAid and encourage you to continue the much needed financial support.