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Women in South Sudan

A reason to celebrate International Women’s Day

Ms. Rial from South Sudan was appointed a judge in the community bench court last year. “A very big miracle,” says the chairperson of the Women’s Union in South Sudan. “It is unique in the history of our community for a woman to be elected as a Chief and sits with men to resolve court cases.” A reason to celebrate International Women’s Day, on March 8.

International Women’s Day 2023

Changing practices in South Sudan

Ms. Rial is truly passionate about the rights of women and girls in her community in South Sudan. She is a Gender Champion in Fangak County, engaged by ZOA’s partner organisation Africa Development Aid (ADA). Last year, she was appointed a judge in the community bench court. A huge milestone in a country where traditionally, court cases are presided over by male community leaders.

South Sudan has a system of legal pluralism, which means that the statutory and customary laws co-exist. Traditionally, courts in South Sudan are presided over by men, as leaders in their community. For long, women had little to no say in decision-making in communal affairs, let alone (customary) courts. Due to this, as well as limited knowledge of laws that protect the rights of women, the rights of women and girls – for example to go to school, to access land and property or to gain an income – are often not acknowledged or even violated.

Thanks to the work of partners ZOA Dorcas, ADA and Community Agriculture and Skills Initiative (CASI) under the Defend Her Rights’ project funded by the European Union, these practices are now changing. 

Woman in South Sudan

Many barriers to overcome

“The message  on women’s rights is beginning to sink in the minds of people here,” Ms. Rial says. “Due to the awareness raised through the Defend Her Rights project, our communities are now beginning to appreciate that women and girls have a right to take up leadership positions and make a contribution to the transformation of their communities.”

Ms. Rial acknowledges that there are many barriers to overcome as a woman in a leadership position. “When I first joined this male dominated bench court, some members undermined me for being a woman,” she says. “Sometimes, before the court sessions, I would even have to look for a place to sit, whereas the seats for my male counterparts were prepared!”

Protect the rights of women and girls

However, when the men on the bench court saw the positive contributions from Ms. Rial, they soon changed their mind. “Once I started to make contributions to the resolution of cases, the men began to respect me.”

Ms. Rial explains that the trainings and campaigns organised by the project, have helped her a lot. “Thanks to the trainings, and campaigns, I now know my rights, and I know how to assert them, and not accept when being bullied. I faced some challenges at the beginning, but now I do my job diligently. I will use my newly acquired position to protect the rights of women and girls and advance their plight.”

Woman in a savings group in South Sudan

During her inauguration as chief at the Bench Court in the city of New Fangak, Ms. Mary – the chairperson of the Women’s Union –  explained it is a huge milestone for a woman in her community to be elected as chief. “It is a very big miracle. It is unique in the history of our community for a woman to be elected as a Chief and sits with men to resolve court cases. Women have always shied away from taking up leadership roles. Ms. Rial’s assertiveness has taught us women that we need to continue to demand our rights.”

About the project

The project ‘Defend Her Rights – Championing Women’s Empowerment in Jonglei’ aims to enhance and promote the implementation of legislation of rights of women in Jonglei State, South Sudan. By working together with community gender champions, community leaders, civil society and state actors, the project addresses cultural barriers. The aim is to strengthen the capacity and legitimacy of civil society actors to lobby and advocate for the implementation of legislation on women’s rights. Furthermore, the project aims to strengthen the capacity of the state system to coordinate and monitor the implementation of women rights’ activities in Jonglei State in South Sudan.

Woman carrying water in South Sudan

The project is implemented by ZOA International, ZOA Dorcas South Sudan and national partners Africa Development Aid, Community Agriculture and Skills Initiative. The project is funded by the European Union (EU) under the EU Emergency Trust Fund (EUTF) for South Sudan.

Read more about ZOA's work in South Sudan