Julie Mariama Sesay
Julie Mariama Sesay is the Freetown Programme Manager at AdvocAid, an organization that provides legal aid and support to detained and incarcerated women and girls in Sierra Leone. Working with some of Sierra Leone’s most vulnerable populations, she fights to make sure that no one is overlooked, and that they are offered opportunities to improve their lives when they are released.
We spoke with Julie for our “Spotlight a COVID-19 Heroine” initiative, which aims to provide a platform to African women whose COVID-19 response efforts deserve wider recognition. During the pandemic, Julie has been unafraid to put her own health at risk in order to serve others. She has engaged with police to secure the release of women who were detained for breaking lockdown orders to fetch clean water for their families, organized a life-saving donation of medical supplies to a correctional center where prisoners were diagnosed with COVID-19, and more.
Read our interview with Julie below.
Q: Could you please tell us a bit about yourself, including what your role as a Programme Manager at AdvocAid involves?
I was born and raised in Sierra Leone and achieved my BSc in Economics and Development Studies in 2011. I have worked with AdvocAid as Freetown Programme Manager since 2015.
At AdvocAid, we work with girls and women who have become caught up in Sierra Leone’s legal system, helping them to access justice and move forward with their lives after their release. Too often, women who are arrested are already marginalized and in poverty and need support when they are detained—particularly if they have children who are left at home.
My role during COVID-19 has been to support AdvocAid’s legal work through monitoring staff, conducting internal trainings, offering legal advice and counselling, and liaising with criminal justice stakeholders to ensure that legal rights are upheld. AdvocAid also works with governments and policymakers at local and national levels to reduce the marginalization of women in their communities. These women are often in extreme poverty, or are facing violence at home.
Q: You have organized and led several interventions to support people in communities in Sierra Leone throughout the pandemic. Your efforts have focused on women, but you have also provided support to men, children, and the particularly vulnerable. Could you talk a bit about these interventions?
When COVID-19 was first documented in Sierra Leone in March, many people at my organization were scared about continuing our work. However, I knew that this would be the time that women and girls would need us the most, and so instead of pausing our work during the pandemic we have scaled up our operations. We have continued to campaign to protect the rights of women and girls who are detained, and are pushing for recognition that COVID-19 is a human rights crisis as well as a health crisis.
One of the issues we faced was that women—and some men—were being arrested simply for going to collect water during lockdown periods. Due to the water crisis we are currently facing in Sierra Leone, many people don’t have access to clean water in their homes, and they have to regularly make trips to outside water sources, often traveling significant distances to do so. When strict lockdowns were enforced, many people still needed access to water, and they were forced to break lockdown rules when they left the house to fetch clean water. Often, these people ended up being detained by the police, and we worked with many of these cases, arranging to have them released. By engaging with the police on behalf of these detainees, we were able to explain that these people didn’t intend to commit a crime, but they didn’t have access to water in their homes. By reaching out to the Sierra Leone Police force and the Regional Commander we were able to secure the release of over 60 women who had been detained simply for going out to fetch water. That was just in March—in April and June we helped obtain the release of many more people as a result of our work to engage with the police.
During the pandemic we’ve also been assessing the needs of our correctional centers. None of them had isolation rooms for new arrivals, so we’ve helped to implement isolation rooms to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among the incarcerated population. We’ve also provided correctional centers and police stations with face masks, handwashing facilities, and sanitizer, not only for police and correctional officers, but for inmates and detainees as well. Overcrowding is a problem in many prisons, so the risk of COVID-19 spreading among inmates is very high.
We also continued to monitor police stations during lockdown, and distributed welfare packs with dried food rations and other essentials to people who were being detained for long periods of time without basic supplies.
On 16 June, Day of the African Child, AdvocAid organized an event at a juvenile detention center in Freetown. The event highlighted the need for a child-friendly justice system in Sierra Leone and the urgent imperative to protect underage detainees from COVID-19, while at the same time advocating for their legal rights.
Q: What have been some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced during your COVID-19 response and relief work with AdvocAid?
One of the biggest challenges we’ve faced has been that many people didn’t believe COVID-19 at first. I lost one of my best friends to the disease so I know how real it is, but we’ve had to work hard to convince people that it is real, and that they need to behave differently to stop its spread. Getting people to wash hands regularly, wear masks and practice social distancing is hard, but gradually we are getting through to people and they’re learning to do the right thing.
We’ve also had challenges with transportation of supplies and staff—I’ve been having to drive people and deliver supplies myself. Finally, we’ve faced challenges of just not having enough resources to support more people—in many cases, we have had the manpower and the will to help, but just didn’t have the financial resources that were necessary.
Q: What have been some of the successes or greatest rewards?
The most rewarding part of our work, to me, is seeing women released. That is very satisfying, particularly when they are released free of charges. During the pandemic, our work to engage with the police has also been a success, and there have been far fewer arrests of people who are just trying to access water or food. It’s also good to see the number of violent encounters between civilians and police decreasing; it’s good to see our advocacy yielding fruit.
I’m also happy that we were able to support correctional centers during this time by getting them the supplies they needed. When prisoners were positively diagnosed with COVID-19 at one correctional center in Freetown, I knew that the longer the prison’s health center was without sufficient PPE supplies, the more people that would be potentially exposed to the virus. So, I organized an urgent donation of medicine and protective equipment to the prison. The doctor at the prison’s health center told us that without this help from AdvocaAid, they would not have been able to save patients and continue working. So this was another moment that stood out for me.
Q: Could you talk about some of the ways COVID-19 has impacted women in Sierra Leone?
During the pandemic, women have faced a lot of violence. Normally, men are out at work, but there was an uptick in violence when they were forced to stay at home because of lockdowns. This often results in both men and women being arrested when women go to the police station for help. We have also seen increased numbers of young girls suffering sexual violence while schools have been closed.
Another source of stress for women is the lack of clean water in many homes. Often women are responsible for fetching water for their households, and having to leave the house to do so during lockdown greatly increased their chances of arrest. Women have also been more affected economically: women typically earn less than men, and many women have virtually no savings. Many women are also overburdened with caring duties and domestic work and have no time to be able to seek employment. So, overall, I think women have suffered a great deal.
Q: Is there anything you have learned throughout your COVID-19 response efforts that you would like to share?
To me, one of the most important takeaways from this difficult time has been that we need to provide more aid and assistance to vulnerable populations instead of marginalizing them. Continuing to stigmatize them will not help them improve their situations.
The pandemic has also shown us how important the health of prisoners is to maintaining good public health. If we keep our prison population healthy, we can make sure that they don’t spread illnesses when they are released back into wider society. Public health is a concern that needs to take all people into account.