Meet 20-year-old survivor Martha*, a resident of Hai Jebel Kher in Wau State. The trauma affected her mental health, pushing her to attempt suicide. Ask her about the experience, and she describes it as a“shame to human dignity.”
Martha, the third-born, grew up in Wau with her parents and six siblings. She attended and enjoyed school up to eighth grade in primary school. While she dreamed of progressing to university, her father was unable to continue providing for school fees and scholastic needs. With the aim to save money to return to school, Martha started a small business of selling tea and breakfast in the Wau market.
Her goal of attending school led her to reject proposals for marriage, which made her family unhappy. After turning down advice from aunts, sisters, and relatives to get married, her own family members began to ridicule, pressure, and threaten her.
When the son of a local prominent government official approached her family to ask for her hand in marriage, the arrangement was done without her consent. Her family accepted the dowry and declared her a wife.
Martha decided to act by reporting the case to a social worker within the Wau State Ministry of Gender, Child and Social Welfare. Her report enraged her family even more, who told her she had shamed them.
Martha said the experience was traumatic and depressed her. While enduring continuing threats from her family, she attempted suicide more than once. When she found out about legal aid services available in her community, she approached them about defense representation. However, despite the progress of the case to the courts by lawyers, the family’s reluctance to appear for proceedings and continued pressure convinced Martha to drop the case or face more consequences.
Martha is not alone.
Prosecuting gender-based violence in South Sudan remains a challenge due to social, cultural and traditional practices and barriers. Additionally, gender-based violence is mostly treated as a customary issue with little or no sanctions for perpetrators and the formal justice system lacks the requisite capacity to adequately address these cases and cater to survivors.
Addressing this, through Access to Justice programme, UNDP delivers on a strong legal and policy framework governing gender-based violence that will seek to promote availability, affordability, adaptability, and acceptability of justice services and promote informed citizenry, especially women and girls, of their rights under relevant South Sudan laws. UNDP along with key partners and support from the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands works to ensure legal representation, access to justice, and empowerment of women and girls.
Martha's case was handled by UNDP's implementing partner, the Civil Society Human Rights Organization (CSHRO). To date, they have dealt with over eighty (80) gender-based violence cases in Wau, Yirol West, and Awerial regions. They continue to provide legal aid, psychosocial support, and counseling to survivors like Martha.
*name changed to protect privacy