It is rare for justice to be easily earned.
That notion holds all the more true for women of color, particularly survivors of gender-based violence (GBV).
If they happen to be in regions with underdeveloped and overburdened judicial systems, then the wait for justice can often outlast their lives.
There are many such grim tales in the Greater Eastern Equatoria region of South Sudan, most of which never even reach a court of law.
GBV remains pervasive in conflict-ridden South Sudan and rights groups have established that all parties are guilty of harrowing acts of sexual violence — rape and gang rape, forced mutilations, abductions, and other sex crimes.
The government’s weak response has been repeatedly condemned and is seen as effectively normalizing violence against women and girls.
There is, however, a glimmer of hope for those suffering here in silence.
Support Peace Initiative Development Organization (SPIDO), a civil society body, has actively pursued cases of GBV in the states of Kapoeta and Torit.
By its own count, the organization has helped ensure justice for at least 100 individuals, who otherwise simply never had the resources to get their day in court.
SPIDO, too, would not be in a position to help others if it were not for the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).
It has received around $30,000 from the UN agency and the monetary support has been vital in its efforts to improve access to justice.
“We have focused particularly on helping survivors of GBV because these women are often the most vulnerable; mentally, physically, and financially,” said Jacob Atari, a legal officer with SPIDO.
“In six months, we have assisted around 100 people in Torit and Kapoeta, which would not have been possible without the UNDP’s support.”
The GBV survivors helped by SPIDO testify to the organization’s importance in their quest for justice and urge donors to keep aiding its operations.
Christine, 20, was raped by three men in Torit and spent years recovering from the trauma while also trying to pursue a case against the perpetrators.
“I did not have the money needed to fight my case in court. I knew my attackers were roaming free while I was dying inside every day,” she said.
“It was only with SPIDO’s help that my case moved forward and one of the men was arrested. I can now hope that my attackers will get the punishment they deserve.”
Another 19-year-old rape survivor, who wanted her identity withheld, shared a similarly painful story. “I was assaulted by four men and left for dead. For two months, I did not even get the medicines my body so desperately needed to heal,” she told Anadolu Agency in Torit.
“I was eventually told of SPIDO’s work and came to them for help. They ensured medical and legal help for me. Today, all of my attackers are behind bars and will pay for what their actions.
“I feel I am only alive today because of SPIDO and the way they took care of me.”
The organization has helped GBV survivors at all stages of their fight for justice.
Its efforts were pivotal in making police act in the case of a rape survivor who spent months running from pillar to post.
“The police officials were least bothered about my case. They put it off for months and I was left hopeless and dejected,” she told Anadolu Agency, requesting anonymity.
“They did eventually detain the person I identified but he was let go without any formal charges. The scenario completely changed once I had SPIDO’s support. My soul may never heal from the brutality but at least that man is getting what he deserved.”
Domestic violence is another area in which the organization has made its mark.
A middle-aged woman, who also did not want her identity revealed, said she put with her husband’s abusive behavior for nearly three years because she was alone and helpless.
“The local judicial system is inherently biased towards women. For years, I was denied my rights as no court would entertain my complaint against my husband,” she narrated.
“With SPIDO and UNDP’s help, I was able to take my case to the state high court and my ordeal finally ended.”
The shortcomings in the local law enforcement and judicial system are not denied by anyone.
Abdhallarahman Al Tom, a judge in Kapoeta state, said a scarcity of judges was a significant factor in the crippled functioning of the judiciary.
“I have 18 new cases at the moment because there are no other judges. There is nothing we can do about the increasing backlog of cases; we can only wait for more judges to be brought in from Juba [capital of South Sudan],” he said.
A minister in the state government, Ukidi Moi Ugura, acknowledged the prevalent problems but said they do not take away from the government’s commitment to protect citizens’ rights.
“We respect the importance of basic human rights and are working tirelessly to establish the rule of law,” he said.
He said the UNDP’s support had proven invaluable in efforts to educate local leaders and enhance their capacity to give people access to justice.
SPIDO’s Jacob Atari also shared how UNDP funding was utilized to increase awareness on GBV. “We used all media tools in our awareness campaigns, which focused on telling people what constitutes GBV as well as the wrongs of other traditional practices,” he told Anadolu Agency.
Elliman Jange, UNDP deputy resident representative in South Sudan, appreciated the manner in which the agency’s funding has been used by the Torit state government and civil society groups.
“The aim was always to reach out to local communities and get them the help they need. It is heartening to see that is happening,” said the official.