Improving Access to Legal Aid for Women in West Africa

 

Legal aid is an essential component of fair, humane and effective criminal justice based on the rule of law. It is the foundation for the enjoyment of other rights, including the right to a fair trial, and an important guarantee of fundamental fairness and public confidence in criminal justice.

Unfortunately, many countries still lack the resources and capacity to provide legal assistance to suspects, persons accused of a criminal offence, prisoners, victims and witnesses. Women often face specific barriers in accessing legal aid, due to a lack of gender-sensitive legislation, policies and services or insufficient knowledge of their rights. Special measures must therefore also be taken to ensure that legal aid is effectively accessible to women. According to the 2016 Global Study on Legal Aid published by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), there is limited availability of specific services for the provision of gender-sensitive legal aid dedicated to women, as well as recurring financial difficulties hindering women's access to legal aid services.

In this context, UNODC and the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women), in cooperation with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), are implementing a project to complement ongoing efforts to improve women's access to legal aid in West Africa, which is funded by the United Nations Development Account (UNDA).

The project targets Liberia, Senegal, and Sierra Leone and aims to improve women's access to justice. It focuses on the promotion and implementation of gender-sensitive laws and policies, capacity building of legal aid providers, and legal empowerment of women. With a human rights-based approach and in close collaboration with local authorities and civil society, the project seeks to strengthen the availability of services and build the capacity of legal aid providers, with a view to empowering women seeking services through a multisectoral approach.

The project began in 2018 with a situational analysis of each project country, followed by the development of a training-of-trainers tool to facilitate the enhanced skills of legal aid providers to deliver gender-sensitive legal aid services for female victims and offenders. A regional workshop took place in February 2019 in Dakar, Senegal, bringing together over 20 legal aid experts from the project countries, as well as relevant UN staff working on the implementation of the project in headquarters and field offices. Action plans identifying national priorities were developed for each country, and UNODC was able to receive feedback from national experts to finalize the development of the training tool for legal aid providers.

The tool was implemented in three national training-of-trainers workshops for legal aid providers, including lawyers, public defenders, paralegals, bar associations and non-governmental organizations in Liberia (December 2019), Senegal (September 2019) and Sierra Leone (July 2019), with a view to improving women's access to legal aid.

 

As a result, through the project, in 2019 UNODC improved the capacity of 51 legal aid providers, including 34 women, to deliver quality gender-sensitive legal aid services in Liberia, Senegal and Sierra Leone, as demonstrated by the plenary sessions (presentations, exchange of information, role playing and practical exercises) undertaken by participants, and exercises to strengthen essential skills needed to provide legal aid. These skills include conducting gender-sensitive interviews, collaborating among professionals and identifying solutions to obstacles during the interrogation of victims of gender-based or sexual violence so that the victim has sufficient confidence in the legal aid provider to reveal important information. Approximately 90% of the 51 legal aid providers who received training in 2019 indicated having increased their knowledge on how to provide gender-sensitive legal aid services. 

At training events in Senegal and Sierra Leone, participants addressed customary, traditional and religious constraints that led to women concealing facts when speaking to legal aid providers out of fear of stigmatization and family reprisals. Professionals from both countries suggested that traditional leaders should be sensitized and trained as first responders to gender-based violence in their communities.

Participants in the Sierra Leone training-of-trainers also reported that women were sometimes not allowed to file complaints under customary law unless accompanied by their husbands or a male relative, while in Liberia, marital rape legislation had not been passed and as a consequence, women who try to report marital rape were dismissed or ridiculed. In addition to receiving training on essential legal aid provision skills, participants were also given specialized training on how to provide gender-sensitive legal aid at police stations, at pre-trial hearings, as well as during and after trial.

 

The trainings also allowed UNODC to improve the draft training manual developed in the framework of the regional joint project with UN Women, by incorporating relevant comments and information provided by participants.

To achieve a comprehensive legal aid regime in West Africa, a gender-sensitive and inclusive approach needs to be fully integrated, whilst upholding human rights principles. This goal and the positive steps taken demonstrate progress towards the collective objective of achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, contributing notably to Sustainable Development Goal 16, aiming to achieve peace, justice and strong institutions, along with a special emphasis on Goal 5: "Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls".

For more information:

Global Study on Legal Aid