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Women demand abolition of repressive customary laws

Authors: Okot Emmanuel | Lugala Mulai | Published: Friday, June 25, 2021

Participants of the conference on Women and Land Rights pose for a group photo on Thursday, June 24, 2021 in Juba. Credit| Lugala Mulai/Eye Radio

South Sudanese women are demanding the abolition of customary laws that do not recognize women’s right to own property.

They urge lawmakers to enact laws that protect their rights to land, inheritance, and family property.

“A woman has the right to own land, and especially a woman who has children has the right to own family land,” they told Eye Radio on Thursday in Juba.

The women stated that there are communities in South Sudan where a woman has no equal rights -especially after the death of the husband.

“In our culture, men are polygamous, some of them have 10 wives, and if the husband dies, it is hard to divide the same piece of land,” said Veronica Nyakenyi.

She believes this is due to a lack of clear laws that protects the rights of widows and orphans in local setups.

“In our communities, when a man dies, the relatives will take all the property of the late and forget about the woman who is taking care of the children. They will say that the property is for their late brother,” said Cecilia Idris.

A report by the UN notes that despite robust legal protections in the Transitional Constitution and the 2009 Land Act, gaps in recognition and implementation of legal provisions mean that women continue to face daily challenges to assert their rights to access, own, and inherit land in South Sudan.

The most disadvantaged are the women-headed households.

The women spoke during a three-day conference on women and land rights in Juba on Thursday.

“A woman whose husband has died should also have the right of inheritance so that she can take care of the children,” Nyakenyi said.

She encouraged women to get national identity cards so that they can acquire land.

“A widow should be protected to inherit. Let us try to support the widows to enable them to raise the orphans,” Cecilia Idris stated.

In some communities, women acquire indirect access to land through their husbands or male family members, with the derived rights being weaker than primary male rights.

Policy loopholes

The UN says, in case of divorce, South Sudanese women lose everything, including land and other properties.

The widow is also inherited by her husband’s family or clan members and the family members of the husband, such as brothers or children, will “sell” the family land and property without the consent of the woman.

“We don’t have policies in place but now is about time to show commitment to really push for a commitment to the land issues,” said Hilde Nergma is the Country Director of the Norwegian People’s Aid.

Bad customary laws

There are more than 50 different customary laws among the tribes of South Sudan.

In some areas, local elders or the chiefs exercise administrative control and handle land disputes.

According to customary law, a woman has no right to inheritance whatsoever.

This is contrary to the constitution which states that “the State shall emancipate women from injustice, promote gender equality and encourage the role of women in the family and public life.”

For his part, the Minister of Land and Housing, Michael Chanjiek says the customary law that deprives women of their rights needs to be scrapped.

“The customary law neglects and sidelines women. We need to confront the rigid customary law that deprived another group of society and giving privileges to others,” he stressed.

Women across South Sudan are asked to continue voicing the discrimination and challenges they face to assert their rights.

The UN calls for the adoption of a Land Policy that will pave way for legislation that will strengthen the institutional framework for land governance in South Sudan.

“The law that gives the right to the boys to inherit their father’s property should be the same law that gives the rights to inherit their father’s wealth because they are all part of the same family,” Chanjiek concluded.

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