South Sudanese women break justice barriers

08 Jul 2011

imageNafewerki Gidey, UNDP Rule of Law specialist, with YWCA Chairperson and manager of the Legal Information Centre, Yambio, Western Equatoria State © UNDP

Poverty, limited access to basic services, low education and literacy levels - just a few of the barriers to legal and human rights faced by women of Western Equatoria state in South Sudan.

Following support from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), major steps are being taken to address women's rights in the newly emerging independent state.

“Their main grievance is lack of rights in marriage, including family violence and sexual assault,” says Christine Joseph, chairperson of the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA), a local organization promoting women's welfare.

“Traditionally, women are responsible for feeding their children and may also look after the elderly. If a husband fails to provide housekeeping money and the wife complains, she may be beaten."

UNDP has placed rule-of-law specialists in all 10 states of South Sudan since a 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement opened the way for the country’s vote on independence in January 2011.

One of these specialists, Afewerki Gidey, set up an independent legal and counselling service together with YWCA in Western Equatoria’s capital, Yambio, earlier this year.

UNDP supported training of six of the centre’s counsellors to provide information to both women and men on issues such as dowry, rape, molestation, child abuse and land and property ownership.

"If the wife decides to divorce an unsupportive or violent husband she gets nothing further from him,” Joseph explained. “If she goes to the chief for redress, he will always take the husband's side.”

Domestic violence cases are handled by the centre's counsellors on a daily basis. After opening in May, the centre took on more than 10 cases in its first six weeks.

In one case, three schoolgirls aged 12 to 14 who claimed they were raped by adult men, received counselling while the accused were arrested and jailed pending criminal court procedures.

While formal legal proceedings are an important part of the justice system, in some situations other options for dispute resolution prove faster, cheaper and more suitable.

"Access to justice is not just about courts and lawyers," Gidey stresses.  "[It] is also about better and early access to information and services to help people prevent and resolve disputes."

UNDP now plans to support efforts to open regional offices and launch a public information campaign.