Justice for Women in South Sudan

Joyce Dawa, Elizabeth Ihan and Lily Achao.
Joyce Dawa, Elizabeth Ihan and Lily Achao.

Joyce Dawa, from Torit County, suffered violence in her marriage for more than three years. When she was 14, her parents forced her to marry and she had to drop out of school. Joyce’s story is not uncommon in South Sudan. Gender inequalities are particularly salient in the new country. Women and girls find themselves deprived of justice in customary laws due to certain cultural traditions, which often restrict women’s opportunities to fully participate in the socio economic realm of their communities whilst also making them more vulnerable to abuse.

“I felt desperate because I couldn’t get any support,” Joyce explains, with visible signs of desolation still in her eyes. Through UNDP’s rule of law outreach activities, she heard about paralegals who provide legal support and advice to vulnerable people. “This is where I met Elizabeth, who counselled me on how I could seek justice and claim my rights.”

In traditional communities, divorced women are often rejected and ostracized. Many stay in the marriage, enduring abuse and suffering in silence, fearing stigma. Without psychological and legal support, Joyce was doomed to spend her life experiencing physical, verbal, emotional and sexual abuse in the hands of her husband. Joyce’s marriage as a constant experience of stress, fear, anxiety, and depression.

But then Joyce met Elizabeth Ihan, a paralegal and an active participant of the Rule of Law Forum created by UNDP. Elizabeth regularly attends the forum and has participated in four of UNDP’s legal orientation trainings. She is now dedicated to assisting victims of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) to access justice in Torit and Magwi.

“The ability of victims of domestic violence to leave the relationship is crucial for preventing further abuse,” Elizabeth explains. “This is why it is better for victims to get justice and leave their marriage, than fear stigma, and harmful traditional practices that have a negative effect on women.”  

Elizabeth is empowered and now working to ensure that victims are provided both legal and psycho-social support.  Thanks to Elizabeth's help, Joyce filed a divorce suit at the customary law court on the grounds of domestic violence and failure of her husband to support her and care for the children. Joyce could not get the justice she sought at the customary court, but with Elizabeth’s support, she pursued the matter through the formal justice system, where she was finally able to divorce her husband.

She went back to school.

“I am thankful for the support Elizabeth has given me,” says Joyce. “I would not have been strong or informed enough to divorce my husband and return to school without her support and advice to seek legal justice and overcome the challenges imposed by the customary system that deprived me from my education and development,” she concludes.

Application of customary law can also obstruct women’s rights to inheritance as well as owning land and property.

Lily Achao, from Magwi County, is a widow with two children. Often in South Sudan, women are forced to marry one of their husband’s brothers after their husband’s death, but Lily refused. Her late husband’s relatives denied her access to her husband’s property, the house where she was raising her two children, and abandoned her and her children. Elizabeth Ihan mobilized community members of Magwi County to support a mediation effort and thanks to this initiative, Lily and her family went back to their house.

Elizabeth Ihan is now a member of the Coalition of State Women and Youth organization in former Eastern Equatoria State and is helping more women like Lily and Joyce.

With UNDP support and funds from the Government of the Netherlands, 68 women have received legal aid services in six states.

Thirty-seven community policing outreach activities were conducted in states at county, payam, and community levels. These outreach activities increased awareness on the laws of South Sudan, especially with respect to issues of forced and early marriage, police and court processes, human rights, women’s rights as well as sexual and gender based violence.

The Emergency Call Center in Juba remains operational and responded to 6,865 calls in 2015, 328 of them related to sexual and gender based violence. The hotline 777 is available and working 24 hours.