Eradicating sexual and gender based violence through saturday courts

30 Jan 2012

image Young Pupils in Kenema lead the campaign against SGB at a rally organized by the Family Support Unit of the Sierra Leone Police. (UNDP/ C. Thomas)

In a recent community outreach session organized by the Family Support Unit (FSU) in Kenema, civil society activists, community members and police officers joined mostly teenage pupils in the streets to raise awareness on the rise of sexual and gender based violence. During the rally that followed, one of the community activists, Christiana Massaquoi expressed the feelings of many present when she said: “Sexual abuse is a menace in our society… it must be eliminated in our communities.”

The prevalence of incidences of SGBV in post-conflict Sierra Leone presents a serious challenge to the advancement of women’s rights and peace consolidation. Youngsters, mainly girls between the ages of 5-17 years, have suffered various forms of abuse, violence, rape, unlawful carnal knowledge, indecent assault and harboring of young girls.

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

She added that more than 50% of gender based violence cases are in respect of abuse of very young girls under the age of 14 years, some as young as 5 years. 
“In order to tackle this abuse and bring an end to impunity, the Judiciary with the support of United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) instituted the Saturday Courts.” said Madam Mensah.

“The Saturday Courts was a response to the high level of impunity which victims of gender based violence were suffering, giving a voice to the voiceless” Said Madam Mensah.

The Saturday Court Project was officially launched on the 26th February 2011 and the Courts started sittings immediately. There are two Magistrate Courts and one High Court sittings in Freetown as well as one Magistrate Court in Makeni.

As the name goes, Saturday Courts sit only on Saturdays and were designed to clear an estimated backlog of 700 SGBV related cases. They were held in addition to the normal weekday court sittings and adjudicate on matters mainly arising from the three Gender Acts. These Acts were passed in 2007 to promote gender justice and women’s empowerment. They include The Domestic Violence, The Registration of Customary Marriage Act and The Devolution of Estates Act.

First piloted in Freetown, the Saturday Courts have now expanded to the Northern City of Makeni, where a recent study showed the highest reports of rape and other gender based violence cases. UNDP’s Support to the Saturday Courts initiative includes logistical support, training of police officers to more effectively investigate and successfully prosecute cases.

“The establishment of the Saturday Courts has recorded immediate impact” said Magistrate J.O Wellington, one of the Magistrates who has presided over the Saturday Courts. He said that at least 80% of cases heard in his court have been committed to the High Court. “Cases are now speedily heard and where there is evidence, committed to the High Courts.”

Madam Mensah added that between February and September 2011, the Magistrates’ Court in Freetown alone successfully heard 499 cases. Between April and July, just before the High Court went on recess, it heard 48 cases.

“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. Victims, 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.

Magistrate Binneh Kamara, noted that one of the main problems the prosecution faced was that witnesses were not coming forward to testify, either because they did not have time during the week or compromise with the perpetrator. “This is now changing, victims are coming forward to report and witnesses are also now testify in court.” The magistrate said.

He added, “I can give you countless examples of how these courts are having an immediate impact on people. Take a case that was brought before me recently. A girl of 10 was illegally abducted by a 45-year old man, who subjected her to brutal and repeated sexual abuse. The man then threatened to kill her if she discloses it to anyone. Thankfully the child did not heed and told her parents. The case was brought before me and now the case is about to be committed to the High Court. I must also acknowledge the excellent and professional work of the Sierra Leone Police. The police did well in investigating the case. They even went to the scene of crime and produced enough evidence to implicate the accused."

“Previously this would have taken three years to pursue, now it has lasted just three weeks” Magistrate Binneh Kamara concluded.

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.