Women’s imprisonment is closely related to poverty: women are in debt because they are poor and cannot afford basic life expenses, and their experiences are worsened because they often cannot afford legal services, fines, or bail.
Because people are unaware of their legal rights and because of outdated laws, straightforward disputes over debt too often result in women being detained. Personal debts are treated criminally based on the charge of fraudulent conversion, obtaining money under false pretenses, and other similar offenses detailed in Sierra Leone’s Larceny Act of 1916. It is AdvocAid’s experience that interpretations of these laws have now evolved far beyond the original definitions for these offenses, and that the current practices distinctly disadvantage women.
Women are increasingly charged with these offenses if they are unable to repay a sum of money they had initially agreed to pay a person. Private debts become reasons for criminal charges and incarceration, with debtors facing the risk of detention for owing as little as $10 (ninety thousand Leones).
One of our clients, Saptieu (28) was a market trader. She owed her goods supplier the equivalent of $600 for merchandise taken on credit. When Saptieu could not pay the full amount on time, rather than give her more time or pursue civil remedies, her supplier reported Saptieu to the police. She was charged with fraudulent conversion. AdvocAid represented her in court, where she was sentenced to 12 months of imprisonment or a fine of $125. Saptieu was seven months pregnant at the time, and was forced to spend a week in prison. She was released only because her husband was able to raise the money for her release.
Our organization, AdvocAid, was established in 2006 to address the needs of women and girls negatively impacted by the criminal legal system in Sierra Leone. Women across the world make up a minority of the prison population and their needs are often overlooked. AdvocAid is dedicated to addressing, holistically, the injustices and gender-specific needs of women in contact with the law, and their children.
Based on our experience working with women impacted by the criminal legal system, our priorities for debt justice are:
- Legal reforms to decriminalise personal debt. In Sierra Leone, and in other countries across the world, people face criminalization–including incarceration–for their inability to pay debts. The practice of criminalising debt compounds and perpetuates poverty, and contributes to the marginalisation of women. We should abolish punishment as a response to poverty, and develop alternative, community-based models.
- Treating debt as a human rights issue. For too long debt has been seen as a personal failure, and non-payment is met with punishment. We must shift our frameworks for understanding debt and its consequences to see indebtedness as a human rights issue: People today face insurmountable debts because of other societal failures, and we should start with this understanding as we reshape our responses to debt.
- Greater understanding of the causes and impacts of personal debt, particularly on marginalized and vulnerable women. The need to take on debt, and the particular experiences of women with debt, must be understood. Such a feminist lens is necessary if we are to achieve structural change.