It’s early on Saturday in Freetown, Sierra Leone but the courthouse is slowly waking up.
A truck rattles through the large gates, carrying prisoners linked to sexual assault cases. Here ‘Saturday Courts’ hear rape and assault cases in a programme partially funded by Ireland through the UN.
Almost 2,000 cases were recorded in the country’s three rape crisis centres during 2012 alone, so the courts serve a vital function in reassuring girls and women that justice can be done.
UN legal officer Rakel Larsen takes me through the quiet corridors. Funding covers weekend salaries but doesn’t stretch to electricity for the silent fans or even lights.
She says the courts, which were set up in 2011, are slowly changing attitudes:
‘It can be a challenge. The Saturday Courts provides a protective, victim-friendly environment, but it can be busy with family members. I think people didn’t come forward before. Now the women’s groups make a lot of noise. And there is a lot of funding, a lot of support.”
She adds: “We don’t have specific case-processing time statistics but we are working on data. You hear of cases waiting seven years to be heard, but gender-based-violence cases don’t wait. Rapes are also heard during the week”.
The estimated annual income in Sierra Leone is €245 a year according to the World Bank so anything with costs is a challenge.
‘We have a Witness Fund. The cost of transport can seem hardly anything, it could be 20,000 SL$ (€3). But a great number of cases are abandoned due to absent witnesses. The victim may have to come to court three or four times, it can be prohibitive,’ says Ms Larsen.
Bail is rarely granted in GBV cases now, she adds. An accusation of child assault means no bail – a 2010 UNICEF report on Sierra Leone found 50% of teenage girls have experienced “forceful sexual relations”.
While we wait, Chief Prison Officer Balogun Dixon talks about life in Pademba Road Prison. Built for 300 people when Sierra Leone was a British colony it holds more than 1,600.
“The prisons are old here, the central prison will be 100 years old this year. The place is over-crowded. I have been 29 years in the service, I have got used to the system.
“There are times when you have constraints in putting prisoners under control, there are some who are too stubborn. We are risking ourselves,” he said.
Some of the prisoners are just children themselves, with boys as young as 14 having been seen.
Justice VS Soloman takes her place. As is usual, she has no clerk and must take her own notes.
A policeman, from one of the 24 ‘Family Support Units’ which work only on sex-crimes, stands in the wooden witness-box. In his efforts to angle the paper towards sunlight, he almost falls out. A ripple of laugher breaks the tension.
The accused rapist is not present; he has run away. Instead his mother stands charged with helping him escape.
A heavy-set woman dressed in traditional clothing, a kerchief wrapped on her head, she stares mutely at the floor.
Ms Larsen whispers that hiding accused rapists is common, and says wealthier men will pay families to settle the case early.
There is no satisfaction for anyone today as the mother is remanded in custody without admitting anything.
Upstairs in a paper-filled office, the Registrar of the Sierra Leone Judiciary, Madam Julia Sarkodie Mensah, says:
‘We used to have a back-log of GBV cases, these are cases which touch people emotionally. It is government policy to do something about this problem, which was exacerbated by the war.
‘Through the courts we have removed a bit of the stigma attached to these crimes, the women feel supported. If this project continues, it can be an example to other countries with similar problems.’
She tells of a local chief who married a 14-year old girl. He was charged in court, and the marriage annulled. Ms Mensah nods her head grimly.
And she says: ‘There are no sacred cows anymore. Now people will be more careful when they are brutalizing our girls and our women.’
More from Niamh Griffin's trip to Sierra Leone:
Sierra Leone a good fit for Ireland
Oil effects: Sierra Leone's once-pristine landscape is being replaced by palm trees
Diamond in the Rough project showcase (Mail on Sunday)
Diamond in the Rough documentary and interview with Minister Joe Costello and with Geraldine Horgan from the Sierra Leone Ireland Partership (podcast; Near FM, Monday, April 28, 2014).
Niamh Griffin travelled to Sierra Leone with support from the Simon Cumbers Media Fund. The fund was set up in memory of Irish journalist Simon Cumbers. In June 2004, at the age of 36, Cumbers was shot dead in Saudi Arabia while working with the BBC.