MOST INFLUENTIAL WOMEN 2013/14
Legal Aid Helps the Vulnerable in DARFUR
by Yousif Ahmed and Hanna Schmitt
Garssila, Sudan—Women and girls continue to suffer from widespread insecurity in the conflict-ridden region of Darfur in Sudan. For 13 years old Aisha, her childhood ended when she was brutally raped by a man while on the way to the market in the small town of Garssila, in former west Darfur, now central Darfur. Unfortunately Aisha’s case is not an isolated one. As law enforcement agencies in Darfur have insufficient resources and incentives to uphold and protect human rights, crisis-affected populations there continue to suffer from arbitrary violence and the deprivation of physical and legal safety.
Women and girls face the daily threat of sexual violence. Given the lack of adequate and responsive law enforcement in the region, women in particular are reluctant to seek justice and
file complaints against attackers. Aisha’s story shows why. Defying prevailing stereotypes and social taboos, Aisha’s family took her case to the local court in town. The court however dismissed the rape case and convicted Asha of adultery with a punishment of 100 lashes after delivering her baby, who she became pregnant with as a result of the rape. Shocked by the court's ruling, the family turned to UNDP for support.
In September 2004, UNDP embarked on an ambitious rule of law programme in Darfur. With funding of overUS$15.3 million from Norway, Sweden, The Netherlands and the United Kingdom, the project is raising awareness of human rights and rule of law among these vulnerable population. It is also working with local leaders, organisations and authorities to help prevent and end ongoing violation of internationally-recognised human rights standards. The goal is to restore people’s confidence in both informal and formal rule of law institutions and to gradually build a culture of rule of law and justice in the region.
Since the start of the programme, UNDP has successfully supported the establishment of eight legal aid centres in Darfur as well as a legal aid network that includes over 60 Darfuri lawyers. Through the legal aid centres, paralegal volunteers provide free legal advice and mediation services at the community level. In case further legal assistance is required, cases can be referred to lawyers from the legal aid network who, with UNDP support, provide free legal advice and representation to crisis affected populations. UNDP rule of law officers on the ground in Darfur continuously monitor the referral of the cases and the quality of the court representation and provide technical advice and guidance as required.
Continuing the Fight
In the case of Aisha, UNDP legal aid lawyers immediately filed an appeal to the General Court in the nearby town of Zalingei, arguing that the age of the girl and the fact that she was raped should reverse the decision of the local Garssila court or annul it at least. However, the General court upheld the ruling of the court. Determined to support the girl’s fight for justice, the lawyers took the case to the west Darfur State’s Appeal court in the state capital of EL Geneina, where the conviction was upheld but the sentence was reduced to 10 lashes. As the ruling was still incompatible with both national and international standards on children’s rights, the legal aid lawyers addressed the Sudan High Court, the highest appeal court in the country.
After lengthy deliberation the court’s justices issued a remarkable landmark verdict, overruling all previous verdicts and acquitting the girl of all charges. In its reasoning the High Court stated that it did not agree with the Appeal Court’s decision which said that signs of maturity, including the pregnancy of the accused, constitute a ground for criminal responsibility, as opposed to the reality of her age, a decision that violates the government of Sudan’s Child Act of 2004. After establishing that the crucial factor in the decision is age and not perceived maturity, the High Court ruled that the defendant’s allegation of rape was sufficient to lift any sentence against her. Although the decision did not go as far as incriminating the perpetrator, it opened the door for a retrial should the victim’s family wish to do so and gave hope to the many women and girls in Sudan who face rape and sexual violence on a daily basis.
Access to justice remains challenging for large parts of Darfur’s population due to a deep mistrust among the local population of the very institutions that are tasked with ensuring their safety and security. Victims face continuing harassment and violence, a severe lack of resources and training for authorities, complex bureaucratic procedures, high costs and pervasive corruption. Against this background, legal aid initiatives such as the one supported by UNDP remain a critical element of development support in the region. The demand for such legal aid services is growing.”
Over the years, we have witnessed a steady increase in requests for legal support by community members,” says Christopher Laker, the regional programme manager for the project. Since 2007, the legal aid centres have provided legal advisory and mediation services in over 3,500 cases and legal aid lawyers have provided free legal assistance and representation in over 1,070 instances. In addition, over 15,000 community members have been exposed to human rights campaign every year. UNDP’s work to provide legal aid in Darfur is not only helping Children and victims like Aisha and her family to deal with these daunting challenges to basic justice and human rights; it is also working toward a future where any and all can expect swift, fair and impartial administration of justice.