by Corinne Reilly
The women begin arriving as the sun is setting, taking their places in worn plastic chairs arranged in a wide circle beneath a grove of trees behind Pact’s office in Ikwoto, South Sudan.
Queen Akongo, a shy, 32-year-old widow and mother of six, is passing out light blue mugs and filling them with coffee that was brewed over a nearby fire.
“Shukran,” a woman with a sleeping baby says in soft Arabic. Thank you.
Queen smiles and nods.
She’s been attending Pact’s twice-monthly coffee group for women – part of the organization’s Access to Justice program – for about a year. What she knew in the beginning is that it’s place where women learn about their legal rights. They talk about problems – the pressure to marry off daughters too young, violent husbands who believe abuse is acceptable – and share solutions.
What Queen knows now is that the group’s true power is the strength that grows among members – a force that made all the difference when she needed it most.
It was after dark on a winter night. Queen was at home with her children when a man she didn’t know approached her one-room hut with a machete. Her neighbors intervened, chasing him away, but when he returned a few weeks later, no one was there to help.
The attack was brutal. He hit Queen with a brick, grabbed her by the throat and bit her. She fought back, eventually punching him hard enough to get away. She ran to the local police.
Instead of helping her, though, they detained her. Her supposed crime? Assaulting the man who attacked her.
Out on bail that was paid by a generous neighbor, Queen awaited her trial. In many counties in South Sudan, including Ikwoto, there are no statutory courts. So the proceeding would be held in a local customary court – a separate system that relies on traditional means of justice rather than South Sudan’s written laws. In customary courts, judges generally have no legal training, defendants do not have lawyers, and punishments tend not to recognize the rights of women. For example, a common customary punishment for raping a married woman is to compensate her husband with cattle, and marriages involving young girls are not viewed as a crime.
Despite plentiful evidence that Queen had acted in self-defense, she was sentenced to pay hefty fines – including her attacker’s medical expenses. Because she didn’t have the money, she was taken to jail, leaving her children to fend for themselves.
When the news reached members of Pact’s coffee group, they were dismayed. Three of them headed immediately to the jail, where they refused to leave until Queen was released.
Their peaceful persistence worked. A day later, Queen was home with her children.
“These women were the only power I had,” she says in a regional dialect of Arabic. “They spoke for me with one voice.”
Since her release, Queen has been able to pay only a small portion of her fines. The little money she has comes from gathering and selling firewood.
Her hope is that with Pact’s help, her punishment will be overturned.
Women’s coffee groups are only a small part of the Access to Justice program, which is funded by the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs. The program also educates citizens about the law and women’s rights using radio shows and community plays; encourages non-violent dispute resolution; trains paralegals to supplement the efforts of the country’s few lawyers; and runs legal aid clinics where the poor can get advice, representation and help mediating disagreements. Typical cases include domestic abuse, child custody, adultery, divorce, thefts, personal disputes threatening to turn violent, and improper rulings by customary courts, such as the one handed down to Queen.
Pact and its local partner, the South Sudan Law Society, have taken up Queen’s case. They’re working to have it heard in the nearest statutory court, where they believe her sentence will be thrown out, as statutory law provides for self-defense.
As South Sudan continues to develop as a nation in the wake of independence and civil war, strengthening the rule of law and stemming violence are vital, says Pact’s Amoi Ferida Vitale, a regional Access to Justice coordinator.
Besides making a difference case by case for people like Queen, Amoi says, Access to Justice is using local solutions to fix root problems and achieve broader, lasting change – a hallmark of Pact’s work around the globe.
“We are promoting the law over violence or customary punishments that do not respect women’s rights. We are showing our children that peaceful dispute resolution and human rights are the way.”
Since 2012, Access to Justice has educated more than 45,000 people about South Sudan’s laws and provided pro bono legal assistance to nearly 1,000.
Steadily, Amoi says, change is taking hold.
More people are turning to Pact’s legal aid offices to open cases or mediate disputes peacefully, rather than turning to revenge. More people are seeing child marriage and domestic abuse the way the country’s statutory courts do – as crimes.
And women once too vulnerable to speak out against injustice are standing up for one another, as Queen’s friends did.
“When I needed help,” Queen says, “they were beside me.”