UNMISS builds capacities among traditional leaders and women on access to justice systems
WESTERN EQUATORIA – Can traditional and community leaders be be successful intermediaries between local authorities and citizens? How can they bridge gaps between customary courts and the formal justice system? What needs to be done include more women in leadership positions among communities?
These were key questions and challenges debated in Yambio, Western Equatoria, where some 30 local leaders from all 10 counties came together at a forum facilitated by the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS).
The main aim of the gathering: Improving justice delivery to promote peace and security at the grassroots by coming up with feasible ways to integrate customary or traditional laws with formal justice systems.
“A sustained peace needs to be built from the local level and that is where community leaders, who are in direct contact with people on the ground, have a vital role to play by promoting dialogue and peaceful coexistence,” said Elia Richard Box, state Minister of Local Government and Law Enforcement. “A critical aspect of peacebuilding at the grassroots is ensuring citizens have access to justice mechanisms and know their legal rights,” he added.
Roadblocks in ensuring communities have the right legal support were the focus of spirited discussions among the participants. For some local leaders, local-level justice mechanisms have not been able to counter repeated disputes among communities, many of which frequently escalate into violence. This is because many people remain ignorant about legal recourses available to them.
Peter Elias, a community leader from Yambio county, has firsthand experience of such obstacles.
“Often, when there is an argument or a dispute within communities, feuding parties are quick to resort to a show of strength,” he revealed. “Things disintegrate rapidly from thereon and the ultimate result is loss of property and life. However, if we, as community leaders, have a good understanding of the law ourselves, we can make a difference by intervening and pointing concerned parties to available legal resources that can help ameliorate their differences. I think that is one of my takeaways from this workshop: For community leaders to enforce a more dynamic approach towards our customary and formal legal systems, know them fully, pass on our information to communities and use them to promote reconciliation,” he stated.
Another important topic—women’s representation in the local justice system—was brought up by Esther Hawa, a women’s representative from greater Mundri.
“I have learned that many provisions exist to safeguard the rights of women and girls in our customary laws that I was not aware of. This workshop has been truly enlightening for me; my plan is to return to Mundri and begin trickling down all the information I have learned. Women and girls have been disproportionately affected by conflict in South Sudan and it is heartening to know we have recourse to justice for our specific issues. This is vital to uphold our rights,” stated Esther passionately.
Other issues participants unanimously agreed on included the need for government support for community leaders; fast tracking graduation of unified forces in the state to counter insecurity; preventing underage or forced marriages to give girls every chance to complete their education; and, lastly, more such training and sensitization activities to enable traditional leaders better discharge their responsibilities.
For Christopher Murenga, Head of the UNMISS Field Office in Yambio, such interactions with the UN Peacekeeping mission’s interlocuters are gratifying.
“Our main job here is to ensure the safety and security of civilians as we support all efforts to build a durable peace from the ground up,” said Mr. Murenga. “Part of peacebuilding is to build capacities among community members themselves so that they can take ownership of peace and trust building initiatives. Social cohesion, after all, begins at the grassroots and we, as a mission are committed to helping people across Western Equatoria, and indeed all of South Sudan, shape a prosperous future for themselves.”
This two-day conference, the first of its kind, was organized by the mission’s Civil Affairs Division, and supported by Western Equatoria’s Ministry of Local Government and Law Enforcement.