The Executive Director of the Legal Aid Board, Ms. Fatmata Claire Carlton-Hanciles told staff and beneficiaries of Dignity Association at their office at Pademba Road recently that the Board has provided a lot of support to other vulnerable groups including the disabled and widows but that the same cannot be said of HIV/AIDS sufferers, commercial sex workers and drug addicts.
“We want to make up for this and this is why, for the first time we are meeting with you and touring the dropping-in centers in the Western Area,” she said.
Ms. Carlton-Hanciles drew attention to the fact that most times people pretend homosexuals do not exist, but added that is far from the reality as the numbers are on steady increase especially on college campuses.
Responding to concerns regarding intimidation, stigmatization and discrimination suffered by HIV/AIDS sufferers put forward by Arnold Kamara, the HIV/AIDS Counseling Officer with Dignity Association, Ms. Carlton-Hanciles said they should report all such abuses to the Board. “We have a duty to provide legal assistance to the poor and marginalized regardless of their status in society,” she said, adding “if people say you have HIV/AIDS, they should be ready to prove this allegation in the courts.”
Also, those who suffer abuse in the hands of the police, relatives, friends or colleagues in the work place should report such matters to the Board which will assign a paralegal to them. “Our Paralegals will teach you about the law and how to seek justice in the case of stigmatization, intimidation and other forms of abuse,” she said adding that those who intimidate others without any proof could be guilty of harassment.
Ms. Carlton-Hanciles drew attention to an issue in Segbwema in which a woman threatened to stop taking Retroviral Drugs because she was exposed as an HIV/AIDS sufferer. She spoke of how the matter was resolved with the active involvement of the local authorities. The accuser had to apologize and had to withdraw her allegation publicly.
Also, the Legal Aid Board team and staff of Society for Women and AIDS in Africa (SWAASL) discussed the impact of HIV/AIDS on female sex workers and efforts by the organization in getting them back to normal life through vocational training and also getting them back to school.
The Programme Coordinator for SWAASL, Marie Benjamin spoke about challenges regarding those who refuse to either go back to school or engage in vocational skills-training. She added that some are only interested in going into business.
She said her organization has trained 200 Peer Educators to sensitize female sex workers and encourage them to take HIV/AIDS test. While on the other hand, the Peer Navigators provide female sex workers with condoms and link them with the Dropping-In Center.
The Legal Aid Board was briefed on the gender based violence faced by female sex workers in the hands of pimps, male customers and the Sierra Leone Police. Ms. Benjamin called on the Legal Aid Board for assistance in putting a stop to these abuses.
Ms. Carlton-Hanciles assigned Paralegal, Mathew Belo in the organization to help with protecting the rights of those who are being abused or threatened with abuse.
She drew attention to the fact that prostitution is illegal and at the same time, bemoaned the fact that the police always arrest female sex workers and not male sex workers. What is more, most times the male sex workers bribe their way out of trouble. “They will charge female sex workers who have no bribe to give,” she said.
The Board also met with the Sierra Leone Youth Development and Child Link in Barbadorie on May 23. The Executive Director of the organization, Habib Kamara spoke of the serious effect of Tramadol on the youth, which is being smuggled into the country from Egypt through Benin and Guinea respectively.
Other drugs abused include Codeine Syrup, Kumbaejara, Kozombo, Petrol and ‘Evostic’ fumes. He said the fact that most female sex workers abuse drugs makes them more vulnerable. Also, there have been cases wherein staff who have been trying to protect the rights of those who abuse drugs have ended up being arrested by the police on flimsy grounds.
Both teams also discussed the need for the establishment of Counseling and Rehabilitation Centers for those who abuse drugs. Both noted that female sex workers are at a greater risk of HIV/AIDS infection and transmission. They agreed to work closely.
For a start, the Board assigned the Paralegal Samuel Harding to the organization to provide advice and legal assistance to their clients.
Ms. Carlton-Hanciles spoke of the work the Board in transforming cliques into productive members of society. She said the Board had sensitization meetings with cliques as part of the Anti-Election Violence Campaign. Also, they will be incorporated into the Crime to Career Programme.
The tours were climaxed with visits to the Dropping-in Centers run by Women in Crisis at Freetown Road in Lumley and Society for Women and AIDS in Africa on Wallace Johnson Street. The meeting with the latter had female sex workers in attendance. The Legal Aid Team interacted with the sex workers and took questions from them.
The Complaint Desk Officer for the Dropping-in Center run by Women in Crisis, Ms. Musu Wongo described the center as a safe place for female sex workers to refresh (have a shower) and relax. The function of the center includes providing counseling services and treatment for sexually transmitted infections, testing for HIV/AIDS, distributing condoms and Information Education and Communication (IEC) materials to female sex workers.
She said most of the complaints from their clients relate to harassment and extortion especially in the hands of the police. She also spoke about an incident in which female sex workers had to escape for their lives after they discovered the body of a woman in a freezer.
Ms. Wongo expressed displeasure at the discriminatory manner the police target female sex workers with arrest and extortion. Also, they charge them with public nuisance and loitering at the beach while hundreds of others spend time enjoying themselves.
Ms. Carlton-Hanciles said even though prostitution is illegal in Sierra Leone, female sex workers have rights which should be protected. ‘We should impress upon female sex workers that prostitution is illegal and help them engage in something productive,’ she said. ‘This does not mean we will sit by and allow anyone to pick on them for discrimination or abuse.’
The Dropping-in Center Manager for SWAASL, Tewo Kallon brought to the attention of the Legal Aid Board the case of a lady in Tombo in the Western Rural District who is being stigmatized for allegedly suffering from HIV/AIDS.
Ms. Carlton-Hanciles said that the Board will organize series of community outreach events in Tombo to sensitize the people on HIV and AIDS (Prevention and Control) Act 2008 and Human Rights.
Another serious challenge facing commercial sex workers, according to Ms. Kallon relates to the posting of their photos on social media by male customers who resort to blackmail after reluctantly paying the amount agreed upon for their service. The issue of violence against sex workers was also re-echoed.
Ms. Kallon said they use Peer Navigators to help commercial sex workers access treatment and other facilities at the center.
The female sex workers accused the Sierra Leone Police of bias in the instance when there is confrontation between them and their clients. For instance, customers who refuse to pay for their service usually accuse them of theft and police usually oblige by arresting and detaining them.
The discussions with the two organizations also centered on support to female sex workers to get them out of prostitution. Ms. Carlton-Hanciles disclosed that they will benefit from the programme ‘Crime to Career’ which will be introduced in the near future.