Saturday Courts help tackle Sexual and Gender-Based Violence in Sierra Leone

 youth participating in sexual and gender-based violence rally
In Kenema City, students take part in a mass rally organized by the Family Support Unit against SGBV (UNDP:C. Thomas)

In a community outreach session in Kenema organized by the Family Support Unit (FSU), a branch of the Sierra Leone Police, civil society activists, community members and police officers joined students in the streets to raise awareness on the rise of Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SGBV). During the rally that followed, community activist Christiana Massaquoi expressed the feelings of many present: “Sexual abuse is a menace in our society…it must be eliminated in our communities.”

The prevalence of incidences of SGBV in Sierra Leone presents a serious challenge to the advancement of women’s rights and peace consolidation, and this has been worsened by a perception that the justice system is slow and ineffective. Young girls and women, mainly between the ages of 5 and 17 years, have suffered various forms of abuse including domestic violence, sexual assault, rape and harboring, amongst others.

Madam Julia Sarkodie Mensah, Registrar of the Sierra Leone Judiciary, noted that one of the major problems faced by survivors of SGBV was that many perpetrators were not prosecuted due to delays in the courts or survivors losing confidence in the process. As a result, families compromise with the perpetrators outside of the court system.

In order to help tackle this abuse and increase access to justice for women and girls who have experienced SGBV, the Judiciary, with support from UNDP, instituted the Saturday Courts. “The Saturday Courts was a response to the high level of impunity which survivors of gender-based violence were suffering, giving a voice to the voiceless,” said Madam Mensah.

The Saturday Courts include two Magistrate Courts and one High Court and were officially launched in February 2011. They began sittings immediately in Freetown before expanding shortly after to Makeni. As the name suggests, the Saturday Courts only sit on Saturdays, and were designed to clear an estimated backlog of 700 SGBV-related cases. They are held in addition to weekday court sittings to adjudicate on matters mainly arising from the three Gender Acts of Sierra Leone, passed in 2007 to promote gender justice and women’s empowerment.

Highlights

  • The prevalence of SGBV incidences in Sierra Leone poses a serious challenge to the advancement of women’s rights and peace consolidation
  • UNDP supported the establishment of Saturday Courts in February 2011 to help tackle SGBV and expand access to justice for women and girls
  • The Saturday Courts have helped clear an estimated backlog of 700 SGBV-related cases and between February and September 2011 alone, heard more than 499 cases in Freetown
  • UNDP organized the training of more than 250 police officers to investigate SGBV crime and support the prosecution process, including through the proper handling of survivors and witnesses

UNDP has provided logistical support to the Courts, and together with the Sierra Leone Police, helped train more than 250 police officers in 2011 to investigate gender-based crime more successfully and support the prosecution process, including through the proper handling of survivors and witnesses.

Between February and September 2011 alone, the Magistrates Court in Freetown heard 499 cases. “The establishment of the Saturday Courts has recorded immediate impact,” said J.O. Wellington, a Magistrates who has presided over the Saturday Courts. He added that “…cases are now speedily heard and where there is evidence, committed to the High Courts.” He also noted that at least 80% of cases heard in his court have been committed to the High Court.

“On the whole, the project is extremely successful. The reported cases have increased as indicated by the increasing number of cases charged to court on a regular basis. Survivors, who had previously been voiceless and faceless, are now audible and visible. As a result of awareness of SGBV in communities, people are now reporting cases to the Police for investigations and prosecution.“ Madam Mensah stated.

At the Magistrate Court in Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital city, Magistrate Binneh Kamara presided over a case in 2011 where the perpetrator abducted and sexually abused a minor. He strongly believes that Saturday Courts are having a significant positive impact. “Previously this case would have taken three years to pursue, now it has lasted just three weeks,” Magistrate Kamara said.

Before the Saturday Courts started, many perpetrators avoided prosecution due to delays in the courts, survivors dropping their charges and few witnesses coming forward to testify as a result of a lack of confidence in the process.

Apart from supporting the Saturday Courts, UNDP supports the judiciary to address the wider SGBV cases across the country. UNDP also provides training of the Sierra Leone Police to effectively investigate and prosecute SGBV cases and works more generally to help strengthen the national judiciary and supporting the Human Rights Commission of Sierra Leone.