Legal aid helps vulnerable in Darfur protect their rights

Women march in Darfur
Women in El Fasher, North Darfur, march for “16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence,” an annual campaign beginning on 25 November, the International Day to End Violence Against Women. (Photo: Albert Gonzalez Farran / UNAMID)

In the small town of Garssila in Central Darfur, 13-year-old Aisha had her childhood cut short when she was brutally raped by a man while on the way to the market.

Unfortunately, Aisha’s case is not an isolated one. As law enforcement agencies in Darfur have insufficient resources and incentives to protect human rights, crisis-affected populations continue to suffer from arbitrary violence and the deprivation of physical and legal safety. Women and girls face the daily threat of sexual violence. Given the lack of adequate law enforcement, women in particular are reluctant to seek justice and file complaints against attackers.

Highlights

  • Eight legal aid centres have been established in Darfur to help vulnerable populations file legal suits.
  • The centres have advised more than 3,500 cases since 2007.
  • The programme operates with funding of more than US $15.3 million from Norway, Sweden, The Netherlands and the United Kingdom.

Aisha’s story shows why. Defying social taboos, Aisha’s family took her case to the local court; the court dismissed the case and convicted her of adultery with a punishment of 100 lashes after delivery of her baby, who she became pregnant with as a result of the rape. Shocked by the court’s ruling, the family turned to UNDP for support.

In September 2004, UNDP embarked on a rule-of-law programme in Darfur  to raise awareness of human rights and rule of law. It is also working with local leaders, organizations and authorities to help end violations of internationally-recognized human rights standards. The goal is to restore people’s confidence in both rule-of-law institutions and to gradually build a culture of rule of law and justice in the region.

Since the start of the programme, UNDP has supported the establishment of eight legal aid centres in Darfur, as well as a legal aid network that includes more than 60 Darfuri lawyers. Through the centres, paralegal volunteers provide legal advice and mediation services at the community level. If further legal assistance is required, cases can be referred to lawyers from the legal aid network, who provide free legal advice and representation. UNDP rule of law officers on the ground in Darfur continuously monitor the referral of cases and the quality of the court representation.

Continuing the fight

In the case of Aisha, UNDP legal aid lawyers filed an appeal to the General Court in a nearby town, arguing that the age of the girl and the fact that she was raped should reverse or annul the decision of the local court. However, the General Court upheld the local court’s ruling. The lawyers then took the case to the West Darfur State’s Appeal Court capital, where the conviction was upheld but the sentence reduced to 10 lashes. As the ruling was still incompatible with both national and international standards on children’s rights, the lawyers addressed the Sudan High Court, the highest appeal court in the country. After lengthy deliberation, the Court issued a landmark verdict, overruling all previous verdicts and acquitting the girl of all charges.

Although the decision did not go as far as to incriminate the perpetrator, it opened the door for a retrial should the victim’s family wish to do so, and gave hope to the many women and girls in Sudan who face rape and sexual violence on a daily basis.

Access to justice remains challenging for large parts of Darfur’s population due to mistrust of the very institutions tasked with ensuring safety and security. Victims face harassment and violence, a severe lack of resources and training for authorities, complex bureaucratic procedures, high costs and pervasive corruption.

“Over the years, we have witnessed a steady increase in requests for legal support by community members,” says Christopher Laker, the regional programme manager for the UNDP project.

Since 2007, the legal aid centres have provided legal advisory and mediation services in more than 3,500 cases, and legal aid lawyers have provided free legal assistance and representation in more than 1,070 instances. In addition, over 15,000 community members have been exposed to human rights campaigns every year.

By Yousif Ahmed and Hanna Schmitt, finalists in UNDP's second annual storytelling contest

YOUSIF AHMED is UNDP’s Rule of Law Officer in West Darfur, Sudan.

HANNA SCHMITT is UNDP’s Coordinator of the Partnerships, Communication and Strategic Advisory Unit in Sudan.