Sierra Leone: Saturday courts tackle gender-based violence

07 Mar 2012

imageYoung people gathered on the streets in Kenema, the third largest city in Sierra Leone, to raise awareness on the rise of sexual and gender-based violence. Photo: C.Thomas/UNDP

Freetown, Sierra Leone – Survivors of sex- and gender-based violence in Sierra Leone are having their day in court, as the judiciary now sits on Saturdays in a critical first step towards clearing an estimated 700-case backlog.

In the year since their inception in February 2011 the Saturday courts have heard more than 630 cases, and processed more than half of them.

To date, 85 cases have been discharged for lack of evidence. In 53 cases the defendant was convicted by the Magistrate Court as the sentence was for less than five years in jail. 

In 183 cases sufficient evidence was found to commit the defendant to trial in the High Court, which has already processed 35 of them.

At the Freetown Magistrate Court in the capital city, Magistrate Binneh Kamara recently presided over a case where the perpetrator abducted and sexually abused a female minor. He says the Saturday courts are having significant impact. “Previously this case would have taken three years to pursue, now it has lasted just three weeks,” Magistrate Kamara says.

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has provided logistical support to the courts, and together with the Sierra Leone Police, helped train more than 250 police officers to investigate gender-based crime more effectively and successfully support the prosecution process, including through the proper management of survivors and witnesses.

The prevalence of sexual and gender based violence in post-conflict Sierra Leone presents a serious challenge to women’s rights and peace consolidation, and this has been worsened by a perception that the justice system is slow and ineffective.

Before the Saturday courts started, many perpetrators avoided prosecution due to delays in the courts and survivors dropping their cases for lack of confidence in the process. Also, few witnesses came forward to testify, claiming they did not have time during the week, or had compromised with the perpetrator.

The Saturday courts are held in in Freetown, and in the northern city of Makeni.