Defender profile: Francess Piagie Alghali, woman human rights defender from Sierra Leone

06.04.2016

Ms Francess Piagie Alghali is the former Executive Secretary of the Human Rights Commission of Sierra Leone and has now joined a network of human rights defenders in the country. On the margins of the NGO Forum preceding the 58th session of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (the African Commission), she spoke to ISHR about her involvement in favour of women’s rights and the difficulties she faces as a woman human rights defender herself. 

Ms Francess Piagie Alghali is the former Executive Secretary of the Human Rights Commission of Sierra Leone and has now joined a network of human rights defenders in the country. On the margins of the NGO Forum preceding the 58th session of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (the African Commission), she spoke to ISHR about her involvement in favour of women’s rights and the difficulties she faces as a woman human rights defender herself. 

After a 5-year term as the Executive Secretary of Sierra Leone’s Human Rights Commission, Ms Francess Piagie Alghali became the women human rights defenders’ focal point for a national human rights defenders network, a position she has held since September 2015. 

An educationist by profession, she started her activist path for women’s rights in 2005 in quite an unexpected manner when, in a wish to help out a neighbour victim of domestic violence, she realised the impact that her basic advice and personal support had had in the woman’s case. After witnessing the beating and hearing the woman’s story, Ms Alghali had invited her to go beyond resisting the physical abuse and take actions to ensure her rights were respected. Following Ms Alghali’s advice, the woman then laid a complaint which proved successful and allowed her to receive some remedies. 

 ‘I saw that I made some difference in my intervention and this was what triggered my interest in human and women’s rights.’

After the incident, Ms Alghali started looking for volunteer opportunities in NGOs involved in the defence of women’s rights as she realised that she 'needed the support, partnership and networks of other human rights defenders in order to make a difference'. From then on she gradually increased her involvement in women rights’ organisations and ended up heading the Secretariat of the Sierra Leone’s Human Rights Commission as Executive Secretary. 

Defending women’s rights, challenging cultural barriers

Ms Alghali identified the 'culture of patriarchy' as being the biggest obstacle facing her in Sierra Leone.

‘Women’s issues usually attract a lot of opposition, particularly from those in power and holding the purse strings: men. My work as a woman human rights defender becomes very difficult when it involves cultural issues that may bring a change to the normal status quo, such as the implementation of the Maputo Protocol, safe abortion, allowing teenage pregnant girls in school…’

Resistance on these issues can also come from other women human rights organisations themselves. For instance, a significant number of women human rights defenders (WHRDs) in Sierra Leone have defended the Government’s position to ban pregnant adolescents from schools whether actively, or by remaining silent. 'Those sensitive issues are the most difficult part of being a woman human rights defender,' Ms Alghali highlights. She also underlines that because she is a woman herself, when advocating on these subjects she often becomes the target of comments of a personal nature that put her own morality or personal practices into question. 

Finding funding: the struggle is real

Another obstacle that has a serious impact on Ms Alghali’s and many other WHRDs’ work is obtaining funding. It has proved difficult for WHRDs in Sierra Leone to gain the trust of local donors who usually don’t subscribe to their activities and tend to consider them as 'less reliable' defenders than men. There is a perception that women may have the tendency to neglect their human rights mandate at some point to focus on their family responsibilities and can therefore not set up long-term and sustainable projects. 

‘They ask questions such as “since you have a family, a home and kids to take care of, can you really find time to concentrate on this activity?” There is a suspicion that because of your gender, because of your other commitments, you might not be as committed as a male human rights defender who does not have the responsibility of being a wife or a mother”. ’

Advocating in a context of intimidation and reprisals

Ms Alghali highlights that advocating on some particular issues can put WHRDs at increased risks of intimidation, threats and reprisals. Such is the case of WHRDs working on accountability issues, business and human rights and other 'politically sensitive issues' in Sierra Leone. 

‘There is more political support for those who are operating businesses so standing against those big businesses, can be a huge challenge and may lead to backlash big opposition.’

As for physical attacks against WHRDs, Ms  Alghali reveals that since the enactment of several laws such as the Sexual Offences Act and the Gender Justice laws, cases of arbitrary arrests or torture against WHRDs have considerably decreased over the past years. Nonetheless, she also highlights that female journalists remain particularly exposed to these kinds of attacks. Hence the need for a intensified safety training effort for WHRDs.

‘Sometimes I feel that women human rights defenders are not sufficiently conscious of their own security and safety which puts them in a position of potential danger. As women human rights defenders we need to be aware of our own safety and security, spread awareness around it and share practices among ourselves, especially as we are coming to a sensitive period of elections in the country.’

The role of regional and international human rights mechanisms and bodies

While she was used to attending the ACHPR sessions as a representative of a national human rights institution, attending it this month from a civil society perspective was a new experience for Ms Alghali. She appreciates the new and 'broader' opportunities for advocacy offered by her activist position and hopes that this upcoming Africa Commission session will help bring more focus on WHRDs. 

‘As this is the African year for human rights with a special focus on women, I would like that through the action of the NGO Forum, women rights be put at the top of the agenda of the African Commission after this session. (…) I want to see what resolutions we will come up with to better encourage States to fulfil their role in terms of the protection of women’s rights and human rights in general.’

Ms  Alghali is also trying to build up a 'formal relationship' between the Sierra Leone human rights defenders’ network and the African Commission through, for instance, the submission of communications on particular cases and the acquisition of 'observer status' by the network. She acknowledges the progress made on the African continent for the protection of WHRDs at the legal and policy levels, but insists on the need to ensure that these provisions have an effect on the ground. 

‘We need to give more momentum to the implementation of the documents, resolutions that we have put in place. Because the whole idea is to bring a change on the ground. Implementation is key.’

Tightening the links among women’s rights organisations

Stronger collaboration among civil society organisations working on women’s rights and among WHRDs is critical to ensure that their voices are heard, said Ms Alghali. 

‘We need to come together and have a common platform to dialogue (…) so we can speak with one voice. When we speak with one voice it is easier to get more results. There is a need for more collaboration and networking.’

For this reason the Sierra Leone human rights defenders’ networks has planned two activities aiming at creating a platform for collaboration among women’s organisations with the final objective being to set up a permanent coalition of WHRDs in the country. The first activity consists in bringing together women’s rights organisations to put in place strategies to advocate for the implementation of the recommendations made by the Universal Periodic Review with regards to women’s rights. The objective is to explore ways for joint advocacy towards the implementation of these recommendations. The second activity aims at doing the same for the recommendations made by the African Commission.

The need for stronger collaboration among women human rights defenders goes far beyond the regional level. Ms Alghali indeed calls for more 'North-South exchanges' on this regard as she strongly believes that Western WHRDs organisations could also learn from the experiences of WHRDs in Africa. 

 

 

 

 

 

Category:

Region
  • Africa
Topic
  • Reprisals and intimidation
  • Women's rights and WHRD
Mechanism
  • African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights
Country
  • Sierra Leone