As L.A.W.Y.E.R.S (Legal Access Through Women Yearning For Equality Rights and Social Justice) turns 18 on Valentine’s Day February 14th, the organization has reaffirmed its resolve to continue to champion the rights of women and girls in Sierra Leone in spite of the Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) outbreak ravaging the country.
For the past 18 years the organization has been mainly promoting and protecting rights of women and girls through legal advocacy and representation but broadened their focus in the last 12 months to joining in the campaign to eradicate the EVD in the country.
Apart from actively involving in several community response programs to fight the Ebola scourge, the organization initiated a ‘clothes drive’ program to help EVD survivors to reintegrate into normal life and, in collaboration with music icon Jimmy Bangura (Jimmy B), recorded a Creole song titled “L.A.W.Y.E.R.S. Against Ebola in Sierra Leone” to educate the public on the disease. Produced by Jimmy B, the song surprisingly features the sweet voices of some of the lawyers themselves, and its audio disc and video are being sold to raise funds to help finance some of the organisation’s activities against the EVD.
The organization also urged NASSIT to provide assistance to surviving family members of victims of the EVD who are eligible to claim for survivors’ benefits (pursuant to Sections 45 and 46 of the NASSIT Act 2001), and reminded everyone that all legislation especially those relating to women remained in force despite the state of public health emergency declared by the President of Sierra Leone.
L.A.W.Y.E.R.S President, Rhoda Suffian Kargbo, says despite funding challenges they will continue to contribute to the fight against the disease until it’s completely eradicated, focusing on assistance to women and girl survivors and those who’ve been directly affected by it.
“Our focus in 2015 on eradicating the disease is very strong particularly as figures keep showing that women are most affected by it,” she says.
Away from the Ebola fight, L.A.W.Y.E.R.S is also actively involved in the ongoing Constitutional Review Process, either directly as members of the Constitutional Review Committee or as legal experts on the 1991 Constitution of Sierra Leone and principles of Constitutionalism, pushing for provisions of genuine equality between men and women to be enshrined in the next Constitution. Prior to that, the organization was the vanguard campaigning for legislative reforms that resulted in statutory protection for women and girls in a range of areas including offences of harassment, violence, sexual assault and rape, all captured in the enactment of the landmark three Gender Acts, including the Domestic Violence Act (2007) and the Sexual Offences Act (2012) .
“We are an organization of dynamic women who have used our education and relatively privileged position to empower the most vulnerable women and girls in our society,” says Lois Kawa, Vice President of L.A.W.Y.E.R.S. “I believe the organization has made it to its eighteenth birthday, because it has remained true to its core value of empowering women and girls, and has attracted members who genuinely care about this.”
Lois further challenges women to stand up and be strong and urges men to treat them with the respect and dignity they deserve.
L.A.W.Y.E.R.S was founded on 14th February 1997 to respond to the legal and social challenges women and girls experienced before the decade-long rebel war. Yet these challenges were in fact heightened and exposed during and after the war, making the organization even more relevant.
“It is good to see the organization still vibrant and making inroads in a lot of areas,” says one of the founders Jamesina King, Commissioner, Human Rights Commission of Sierra Leone. “However, in spite of the introduction of laws, policies and institutional frameworks for women and girls a lot of challenges remain. Most women still do not fully enjoy their civil, political as well as economic and social rights and discrimination against them still persists.”
She says L.A.W.Y.E.R.S need to do more to ensure that reforms work for women and girls nationwide, and that the organization need to be supported with the necessary capacity and resources to meet the demand for their services particularly in rural areas.
Another founding member, Yasmine Jusu Sheriff, is equally impressed that women lawyers have kept the organization going for so many years ‘through some very difficult times’.
“I am really happy that the young women coming into the profession have embraced the vision of the founders to use the power of the law to help the poor and powerless,” says Jusu Sheriff.
“I would only urge them to speak out louder against the constant injustice and exploitation in our country particularly of women. We women lawyers today are benefitting from the sacrifice and struggle of pioneer women like Frances C. Wright. We need to recall and appreciate those efforts by speaking up about abuse and violation of women in all sectors.”
While most people will be busy cracking their heads to find the perfect gift for their loved ones on Valentine’s Day, this group of young female lawyers will be celebrating their 18th birthday with the most vulnerable women and girls of Sierra Leone by delivering food and clothing items to some families affected by EVD in the Port Loko District.
Credit: Development & Economic Journalists Association- Sierra Leone (DEJA-SL).