Female traditional leaders pave the way for fair representation

Traditional court in South Sudan
Traditional leaders Cizarina and Susan (left) preside over a case in the Nyang traditional court. Photo: Angelique Reid/ UNDP South Sudan

On a bright morning in the district of Nyang, 53-year-old Cizarina Ayuru and 37-year–old Susan Kaino preside over a civil case in a building serving as traditional court. Elected by their community as traditional leaders, Cizarina and Susan are two of the three women serving as traditional leaders in the district.

“The community felt confident that we would represent them fairly,” explains Cizarina, a widow and mother of three children. “I was the first female traditional leader in Nyang to preside over cases in a traditional court, and I want to be a role model for women and girls in the community,” she says.

Highlights

  • The number of female traditional leaders sitting in traditional courts has quadrupled in Eastern Equatoria State
  • Workshops provide basic training on principles of law, human rights, and women’s rights and identify inconsistencies between customary law and the Transitional Constitution
  • A training manual was provided to traditional authorities at the state level

A mother of seven, Susan operates a small shop next to her home. “I’m carrying out this role because, where I live, there are many disputes between the residents, over water at the boreholes, over chickens and ducks and various domestic issues,” she explains.  “Since becoming a traditional leader, I found I'm able to resolve issues and help the community become more peaceful.”

In South Sudan, law and order services are scarce at local level, and often limited to customary ways of dispute settlement. Traditional courts are widely used to resolve civil matters and petty crimes, most commonly domestic issues such as adultery, domestic violence, debts, inheritance, and land disputes.

As more than 80 percent of cases are heard in traditional courts, it is important that traditional leaders have the right skills to administer justice in accordance with international human rights standards.

Cizarina was invited to become a member of the Rule of Law Forum, established in 2008 as part of UNDP’s Access to Justice and Rule of Law programme to provide a platform for dialogue between the government and communities. The Forum meets monthly and holds training workshops for traditional leaders, with funding from the Government of the Netherlands.

The workshops provide basic training on principles of law, human rights, and women’s rights; help identify inconsistencies between customary law and the Transitional Constitution; and stimulate debate on the legal status and situation of women under customary law relating to inheritance, the right to own property, marriage. and divorce.

“I feel empowered and confident to speak on behalf of others in my community…I have the right to talk on issues relating to women. At first, some of the women didn’t know their rights, but now it’s making a difference to the way they think,” says Cizarina.

71-year–old Enrico Jacob says that, since attending the training for traditional leaders, he too changed his way of thinking. “In some cases, widows are traditionally forced to marry their husband’s brother. I now believe it is the choice of the woman whether to marry or not,” he says.

In South Sudan, gender disparities in access to public services are severe. The government has acknowledged this in the state-building process, promoting female representation at all levels of government.

Cizarina and Susan are also members of their State’s Women Association, encouraging women from other areas to come to the Rule of Law Forum and learn about their rights. “Every traditional court comprises seven members and ideally there should be at least one female representative, one elder representative, one youth representative and four male chiefs,” says Cizarina. “But, in half of the County’s courts, there is no female representation.”

Many women in the community have the potential to become traditional leaders, but are reluctant because they either have young children and husbands who do not support them, or because the role of traditional leader is voluntary and unpaid. “While I do face barriers in trying to encourage them, I will not give up,” says Susan.

As a result of the UNDP training workshops, and by way of resolutions passed at the Rule of Law Forum, the number of female traditional leaders sitting in traditional courts has quadrupled in Eastern Equatoria State.

When asked what he thought of women presiding over cases in the traditional courts, Enrico responded saying, “They bring a female perspective to cases which was absent before…They are vital to ensuring the courts represent all members of the community.”

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