Friday, 23 July 2010

An afternoon in the Baray

It has been a while since I have had a chance to update this blog. I have been writing regularly for the Royal College of Midwives website click and also for the Vodafone World of Difference webpage. I have written more on what I have been doing during June and early July on the RCM page here and the WOD page here.

This week I have had my first experience of the traditional justice system. The justice system in Sierra Leone comprises of three separate systems. The traditional system presided over by the Paramount Chief (PC), each district (similar to county) is divided up into Chiefdoms and is ruled by a PC who has a number of other Chiefs (including Town and Section Chiefs under him), then there is the local court system which mainly deals with land issues or personal disputes and finally the Magistrate court system which deals with criminal cases.

Our main project is the ‘Kombra en Pikin Welbodi Community Project’ focusing on improving maternal and child health and reducing maternal and under 5’s mortality. We have a number of smaller projects which run alongside this including a Sexual and Gender Based Violence (SGBV) project. Sexual and gender based violence has been common in Sierra Leone and often seen as something that is between a husband and wife, or to be settled within the family or in a traditional way through the Chief. Three Gender Acts were passed as law in 2007 and sexual or gender based violence is now an offence and punishable by law.

We now have an extremely dynamic field officer who is the focal person for our SGBV project. Our project aims to support survivors of SGBV, including paying for medical treatment, offering a safe home with women we have trained as ‘community hosts’ and supporting the woman to access justice through the legal system if she wishes to do so.

It is important to change attitudes of community members, community leaders and the police towards SGBV. HPA has been doing this in a number of ways, through holding a rally to raise awareness of women’s rights and the gender acts in Kamakwie. T shirts were printed with slogans such as ‘Nor fose ooman na bade’ (do not force a woman into bed) ‘Ooman na posin jus lik man’ (A woman is just like a man and should be treated equally), airing radio discussion programmes and conducting trainings with community leaders and police. We work closely with the Family Support Unit section of the police which deals with these matters.

It is a big step for women to seek justice through the legal system. She may well be doing this against the wishes of her family and community who would rather resolve the matter within the family or through the Chiefs. Since our SGBV officer started work in May we have had many women coming to our office reporting that they have been victims of SGBV and asking for assistance. Some of these women have required hospitalisation. Not all of them have taken the perpetrator to court but some women have been clear that they wanted justice even if it is not an easy decision for them personally. Two perpetrators have now been successfully prosecuted and given custodial sentences which is an important step as it will hopefully be an example that the law can and will be upheld and that women have a right to a life free of violence.

One of our field officers was summoned to the PC this week through the traditional justice system as a result of a local councillor being unhappy at how he publicly defended this part of the organisations work in response to a statement made by the councillor. Of course we went along to support him.

The hearing was held in the Paramount Chief’s ‘Barray’ which is a round building with low walls, a tiled floor, open sides and a conical thatched roof. The Paramount and other Chiefs gather to hear both sides of the case. Other people can also sit and listen. We do not have this kind of forum for settling disputes at home. The person summoned has to pay money (in this case 15,000 Leones about £2.60 which is a fair amount of money in a country where a large percentage of people are earning less than £1 per day) before appearing at the Barray.

The two individuals with the dispute sit in front of the PC and other Chiefs, they each have to pay money for the case to be heard (30,000 Le) they then each have to say how much they want the other person to compensate them if they win the case (100 -150,000 Le in this case). They are each allowed to call witnesses, every witness is given 2,000 Le by the person who called them as a witness and before they give their statement they are asked to hold the money and state that if they tell the truth they will 'eat' the money to get ‘welbodi’. Everything is done orally, there are no notes taken and written evidence is not permitted. The person who summoned the other tells his story first, the other person and the Chiefs can then ask him questions; this is followed by the person who was summoned doing the same thing.

The witnesses wait outside and are called individually to give their account of events and can be asked questions by either of the people involved in the dispute or any of the Chiefs. Once this has all taken place the Chiefs go and ‘hang heads’ to decide on a verdict. In this case the Chiefs ruled in favour of the councillor although they emphasised they have full support for the work that HPA is doing around SGBV in the community and they were deciding on a personal dispute which has no bearing on how they felt about the issue of SGBV.

The family of the person who summoned our field officer decided that he should not pay the compensation money as they felt the situation should not have gone this far. This whole situation highlights what sensitive and emotive work supporting victims of SGBV. As one of the Chiefs rightly said if they community is to ‘go before’ (Krio for develop/improve) it is crucial that violence against women stops and those responsible are punished