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The problem with “girl child compensation”

An interview with Global Legal Empowerment Network member John Mabor

John Malith Mabor is a practicing legal attorney. He began his primary education in Sudan and completed secondary school in Uganda, where he also earned his Bachelor’s degree in Law. After graduating from Kampala International University in 2011, John was selected to work with the South Sudan Law Society (SSLS) in a newly independent South Sudan.

“OF COURSE OUR CONSTITUTION IS VERY CLEAR.  Initially it provided that all the customs of the people of South Sudan would be recognized and that they could be practiced. But those customs that were repugnant, those that were against the legal framework, would not be entertained.

South Sudan is made up of ten states. One of the states is called Eastern Equatoria. Let me just bring it as an example of where customary law actually undermines our formal legal setup–our legal system.

The communities in Eastern Equatoria state have their culture of what they call “girl child compensation”. Girl child compensation is a situation whereby if someone from one clan decides to kill someone from a different clan, then the members of the aggrieved clan have the right to go to the other community and demand compensation.

Not in terms of cows, not in terms of fine goods, but in terms of a human being, who is actually a girl.

Sometimes we as lawyers are able to intervene in the form of legal aid. But for the most part the only people that are doing the role now are paralegals, in cooperation with the police.

As you know, South Sudan just got its independence. Our people still have a concept of following their traditions and customs, though our legal framework is often actually saying something different.

We are training our paralegals on the basic laws of South Sudan so that they can work with communities to at least to harmonize the cultures where they came from with the country’s formal legal framework.

When we talk to these communities about girl child compensation, we explain that the law does not recognize that. Because first of all, there is equality before the law.  Why is it that you would compensate with a girl, rather than with a boy?  But more importantly, is it really human for a human being to be compensated because another person was killed?

At present, formal law is administered by the Judiciary of South Sudan.  We have the structures of the courts of adjudication, and they administer our legal justice. Then there are also customary courts, which were established formally under the Local Government Act in South Sudan.

The chief courts, or local courts, are administered by traditional leaders. Whenever there is an issue arising in a particular region or locality, the chiefs handle the dispute according to their cultures, although their culture sometimes contradicts the Constitution, or the legal setup.

We have realized that the moment we equipped our paralegal with basic legal knowledge, they are able to deliver. They assist the legal system, the entire legal system, whether it is civil society, like our organization, or at the government level.

Because the judiciary of South Sudan is still very young, we do not have enough lawyers. Even within the Ministry of Education the attorneys are not very many. Sometimes we as lawyers are able to intervene in the form of legal aid.  But for the most part the only people that are doing the role now are paralegals, in cooperation with the police.

Paralegals are different from the lawyers because paralegals are just members of the community who have been selected based on their integrity in each and every community, and how well community members will listen to them.

Our paralegals are doing a great job these days in South Sudan, especially in remote areas where customs and tradition really dominate the environment.

John Mabor, as told to Bremen Donovan

Watch all the interviews in the African Voices of Legal Empowerment series.

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