FREETOWN, SIERRA LEONE
— Former female prisoners in Sierra Leone are finding creative ways to incorporate themselves back into society. They are making beaded jewelry that is not only giving them confidence, but is starting to gain recognition in stores worldwide.
Rikke Clevin Jensen teaches a beaded jewelry making class to former prisoners twice a week in the capital, Freetown.
She says the classes have given women a chance to learn not just about the art of jewelry making, but also how to stay focused. "They take pride in what they are doing, they concentrate, they sit down and in some lessons you can hear a needle drop because they aren't saying anything," Jensen said.
The bold vibrant colors include necklaces and earrings. Some of the designs feature the popular Sierra Leone material known as lappa, a type of cloth used in the country.
Jensen, who has a degree in jewelry design from Britain and has had her jewelry worn by American socialite Paris Hilton, decided to get involved with teaching the women after the organization Advocaid put out a call for people to help former female prisoners learn new skills.
Advocaid offers legal services to women in prison and helps former female prisoners reintegrate back into society. According to Advocaid, women in Sierra Leone make up a small percentage of the prison population - less than 10 percent. However, this number is on the increase in Sierra Leone and across the world.
Executive director Sabrina Mahtani says reintegration programs like the jewelry class are crucial because some of these women are innocent. She says even those who did make mistakes deserve a second chance to be able to become productive members of society.
The women in the jewelry class have been charged with everything from petty theft to murder. Getting a second chance has been a life-changing experience.
One woman taking the class says in her native Krio language that before jewelry making she didn't know anything about beadwork but she feels more confident in life generally now because she knows she can learn and put forth new skills.
The jewelry made in the class has already developed into a small business called Salone Style
and sells across the country. It has been around for just over a year but some of the work has already been sold abroad, in South Africa, Canada and Australia.
Salone Style brings a positive image to Sierra Leone, says Jensen. "We really love to create something beautiful that is Sierra Leone and maybe helps to change perceptions of Sierra Leone, that isn't just a place where people get their hands and feet chopped off," she stated. "And I think that's a really lovely way of doing it."
Jensen says selling jewelry also gives women empowerment and financial independence.
Another woman taking the class, also speaking in Krio, says her husband is glad she is making jewelry and he may give her money to start her own small business.
The concept of using creativity to help women after life in prison is something Prison Watch Sierra Leone would like to see more of.
Mambu Feika is the director and says for former prisoners, getting back into society is always hard. Many times prisoners families disown them. "A lot of them are victims of abandonment, victims of neglect, victims of community neglect, so it is really a serious problem for them," he said.
As for Jensen, she hopes more women will become involved in the classes.
Right now they have about 10 women. Jensen says the the main reason the class is such a success is that it's a safe haven where women can bond with each other. "I think the space, the class, is a chance for them to forget the past and to look forward," Jensen explained.
And that is exactly what they are trying to do.