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Law reform initiatives for women and real societal norms

By Kuyang Harriet Logo Mulukwat

Sexual Gender Based Violence (SGBV) is extremely prevalent in South Sudan, in both times of peace and conflict. Women and girls face many interlocking barriers to justice. Cultural barriers provide an unleveled arena for women to raise their concerns – owing to a marginalized role of women in both the family and a social stigma attached to survivors.
Legal barriers in the form of a discriminative customary law structure; legal procedures that discriminate against women, offering the enjoyment of limited rights and systemic barriers – poor infrastructure, lack of resources both financial and human , make it extremely difficult for survivors to seek justice. Many donors agencies, plus a host of other developmental partners have supported multiple programmes as a response plan and intervention for nearly a decade now – yet the progress has so far been very minimal and in most scenarios not visible at all. Women and girls continue to suffer SGBV at the hands of countless perpetrators. Perhaps realignment and a focus on the societal norms – will provide a roadmap on why the cycle of violence occurs regularly.
A desk review of studies, polices (existing and draft) and legislation reveal that the predicament of SGBV has received a level of attention and strategies have been inbuilt in policies and studies – to find the best solution, yet after several interventions, the situation of women and girls have not improved and has, instead, worsened. The author analyses the reasons behind the meager success stories told.
As one of the lead consultants on the development of the National Action Plan (NAP) for South Sudan, on UNSCR 1325 – on women’s peace and security, the author held two sessions of local consultations (Malakal and Juba). The consultations held to include voices of women who are at a high chance of being neglected reveal that laws and policies alone cannot solve this predicament. A top down approach will register minimal results. Perhaps, a top down and a bottom up approach with a focus on the bottom will create a change.
In these sessions, concerns related to women’s security vary within urban and rural areas, with more women being at risk in the rural areas as compared to the urban centers. The years of war leading to independence have created a culture of violence. While rape was not traditionally used as an instrument of war, there have been more prominent cases of rape in the troubled Jonglei and upper Nile State and in Juba, where the military is based.
On the protection of the rights of women and girls, which is a cornerstone of one of the pillars of the UNSCR - women have limited recourse to the formal justice mechanisms, only available in the urban centers while the existing customary courts apply rules that continue to violate women’s rights. Chiefs demand that women obey their husbands and follow community cultures.
Many concerns of the respondents relate to marriage, an institution of critical importance, which—perhaps more than any other aspect of life—shapes a woman’s experience, status, and security. In marital disputes, customary courts place the emphasis on preserving marriages, even if doing so is to the detriment of a woman’s safety and well-being. Husbands treat their wives as they please, for instance at the slightest provocation, a woman can be beaten. Under local customs in Upper Nile and Central Equatoria, marriage involves the payment of a bride price by a man and his family to a woman’s family and chiefs often overstress its importance and a husband’s resulting rights over his wife. Marriage is thus the backdrop against which the topics discussed need to be understood. Men dictate all aspects of their wives’ and daughters’ lives – viewing them as secondary citizens with secondary rights, as allowed by each family head.
Women’s economic rights are highly disregarded. Opportunities for wage labor jobs and professional positions remain rare even after independence and the predicament is further compounded by the fact that women and girls need to seek permission from their husbands, brothers and uncles to undertake any form economic activities.
The few who are employed are equally discouraged by constant accusations of adultery by their husbands and male relatives. Some respondents admitted that the few women who have been allowed to work in the County, Payam or Boma offices are assigned roles which relegate their contribution to serving tea or receiving guests – roles which come naturally to women and are perceived as the most relevant.
Women’s access to land is equally limited and while there are significant variations among the customary laws of various tribes, the author places a focus on laws that are common to most of the tribes in Upper Nile and Central Equatoria State. Women’s rights to land have an uncertain legal status. Customary law does not recognize a woman’s right to land and property ownership.
The Constitution and Land Act assert that women can own land. However, neither customary nor formal institutions enforce women’s land ownership. Widows, single mothers and other women without husbands or families are regularly denied ownership and control over land. In almost all tribes in South Sudan, a woman is part of the household of her parents before marriage and has the same rights to occupy and use the land as the rest of the family. When she marries, she gains access to land at her marital home on the strength of the marriage and she can use the land of the husband in the same way she had the right to use and occupy the land of her father.
Families in the rural areas have land rights that pass down through the family and cannot be sold to another. Families often bury their relatives on their property, so the generational connection to a piece of land is strong. Women have owned land in instances where the community elders have recognized her as a vulnerable member of the community.
These discussions place a premium on the need to work within families, traditional authorities to change societal norms and perceptions, that to inflict SGBV on women is not a demonstration of power, but a sign of weakness and also rework, the societal thinking to begin a process of a social change – for males and females to re- examine the treatment of women and girls, and to agree that it is wrong to harm a larger section of the community, just because they are women and girls.
The problem has always emanated from the societal orientation and stereotyped gender roles – which inculcate a behavior of submissiveness, tolerance, weakness for a girl, while for the boys, they are trained to be aggressive, powerful, master of the female and so forth – a dialogue to engage both parents and guardians of children, must begin to change such perceptions in the early childhood stage, so that as the children grow – both girls and boys realize that they are all equal and require equal treatment.
The author stresses that such interventions can take many forms – through creative arts, brochures, radio broadcasts and trainings for families, communities and the traditional authorities, opinion and church leaders – to make a difference as a starting point. And the second step would then focus on how the available courts can fairly handle similar matters at both the family and community levels.

The author is a South Sudanese lawyer and senior Consultant, a continuing legal scholar and writer on Democratic Governance and the Rule of Law and lectures at the College of Law, Juba University on a part time basis.
She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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