Tierney Smith: Will women have access to justice in the new South Sudan?

In the third part of our series on South Sudan, Tierney Smith looks at the fledgling justice system and whether women will have equitable and fair access to justice. Tierney is a freelance multi-media journalist, living and working in London.

Will women have access to justice in the new South Sudan?

Will women access justice in the new South Sudan? On 9 July 2011, with a huge majority – 99 per cent of the votes – South Sudanese voters opted to secede from Northern Sudan. Of the 3.9 million registered voters, 51 per cent were women, who in the 22 year long conflict have faced injustice, poverty and the threat of violence. Does this move signal a new opportunity for empowering South Sudan’s women?

Countries that have experienced post conflict transitions have tended in the past to represent the most significant gains for African women. This is because it allows for a complete restructuring of the government and the constitution.

To date, the conflict in Sudan has offered this opportunity. The Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), signed in 2005 by both the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) and the Government of Sudan, stipulated 25 per cent of representation by women at all levels. These numbers have been largely adhered to in South Sudan, offering women the chance to assume leadership and decision-making in the Government of South Sudan, putting women’s justice on the agenda.

However, human rights groups are still concerned. The Enough Project have voiced worries that the 25 per cent threshold is being used as a smoke screen, where weaker women are put into positions of power, while more independent women continue to be marginalised.

This represents a trend in Sudan, which for years has seen women’s rights sidelined by law; both formal and customary.  The report also notes that 90 per cent of civil and criminal cases in Southern Sudan are decided on the basis of customary law – local customs and norms set up by elders.

These laws are usually controlled by men, and sideline women and tend to differ from international laws. These customary laws, along with women’s back-seat position in the family make it very hard for women to get justice for some of the most serious crimes.

According to mny reports Gender Based Violence has been a common aspect of the Civil War in Sudan, but it can be very difficult for women in the region to come forward about a rape or sexual assault. Under law, the rape of a wife by her husband is not acknowledged and men in positions of authority including those in the armed forces are immune from being tried for rape charges.

The Hope Report points out that the stigma surrounding rape also prevents women from reporting sexual violence. One of the main concerns is that rape and adultery are intertwined within the legal definition of rape in the country. A married women reporting a rape can automatically be charged with adultery if there is not enough evidence to prove it was not consensual – evidence which is almost impossible to gather in some circumstances.

This often leads to women facing further repercussion and violence if they come forward and report a sexual assault. Despite many women in the country admitting rape is a major concern for women, very few will admit to having been assaulted.

Since the CPA was signed in 2005, the UN Development Programme has placed rule-of-law specialists in 10 states in South Sudan to combat these problems. In West Equatoria State, an independent legal and counselling service has worked with the Young Women’s Christian Association, to provide information to both men and women on issues such as dowry, rape, molestation, child abuse and land and property ownership.

According to the report the scheme has seen some successes. In one case, three school girls aged 12 to 14 who claimed they were raped by adult males received counselling, while the men were arrested and jailed pending criminal proceedings.This shows a first step towards helping women to beat the stigma and come forward in cases of sexual violence, and moves in the legal process to punish these crimes.

However, justice is not only about women’s place within the law. It is about women and men alike having better and earlier access to information. In Sudan women have experienced harsh living conditions, poverty and a lack of access to education and health care. Women are more vulnerable to contracting diseases such as HIV and AIDS, and the country has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world – 1,700 deaths per 100,000 live births.

Sudanese women gained the right to vote in 1964 and the right to equal pay in 1970, however, with 92 per cent of women in the country being illiterate, and boys enrolled in primary school outweighing girls three to one, a lack of education and therefore a lack of access to information is a major barrier to women’s justice.

In the build up to the referendum, UN Women helped to set up an eight-member Gender Unit that promoted women’s participation through building dialogues and creating educational and communications materials. The UNDP’s Good Governance and Equity in Political Participation also sought to provide women with the skills and knowledge to enable them to effectively participate in the decision making process.

The Referendum  could have provided a major opportunity to empower women in South Sudan. Like many other African states before it, the overhaul of the political make up of the country could give politicians, both men and women, the chance to get gender issues on the agenda. However, after a 22-year-long war, which saw women disproportionately affected, there are still many barriers blocking women’s effectiveness in the decision-making process.

The views expressed in this blog post are entirely the author’s own and may not reflect the views or opinions of RESULTS UK.

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