• Pyry Salomo PAULASAARI | IOM South Sudan’s Peacebuilding Project Officer (Conflict Resolution)

“This matter concerns women, so let us speak.” The heated discussions of the customary law review workshop quieted to hear the women’s interest group representative from the Twic East Dinka community. She makes her case as the participants follow attentively.

Her remarks thus become part of the record of a review process whereby communities come together to ascertain, review, and codify their customary laws and traditional practices. A key reference point is the supreme law of the country, the Transitional Constitution of South Sudan. Equality of all persons is a key guarantee within the document.

An invaluable pathway for the realization of equal rights is through customary courts, which hear at least 80% of all disputes in the country. IOM’s support to these institutions has seen the appointment of individual customary law courts’ first female members. They are important steps for the world’s youngest country.

However, in the case of Jonglei State and the Greater Pibor Administrative Area (GPAA), discussions are overcast with even greater challenges. In an oft-cited case of climate injustice, South Sudanese communities are already facing the very tangible effects of climate change. In Jonglei and GPAA, dry seasons are slowly turning into seasonal droughts, and rainy seasons are characterized by less frequent, more intense rains. At the time of writing in Pibor Town, marketgoers are using canoes to cross streets submerged by a mere three weeks’ deluges.

Flooded Pibor Town marketplace. Dirt roads have been replaced by floodwater, and people are being ferried around on canoes. Photo: IOM/ Pyry Salomo PAULASAARI

 “Crops are failing, cattle are dying, and whole communities are being displaced. Pibor has never seen flooding like this in my lifetime,” says James Lilshow, IOM’s Project Assistant in Pibor.  

Chiefs are centrally placed to ensure stability and resilience of communities, especially with these new challenges. When communities become displaced, chiefs negotiate with host communities and regulate migration to avoid conflict. Importantly, this includes advising their communities to abide by the laws of the host community, who are often struggling with the same crises.

Youth are also key actors, tasked with identifying water sources during droughts or new sources of food when crops fail. They are responsible for crossing flooded areas and aiding the travel of vulnerable community members, including people with disabilities

Youth crossing from Pibor market towards the town, which has been able to dry due to its elevation. Photo: IOM/ Pyry Salomo PAULASAARI

As always, life goes on despite its challenges. People continue to find life partners even during migration and displacement and events like marriage remain sources of communal joy. Families have started coming together to accept reduced dowries to facilitate the marriage of their children as cattle die from thirst, starvation, diseases, or conflict. “The remainder can be paid once the disaster is over,” a Duk Dinka chief remarks.

However, disasters are becoming common and prolonged. Although contrary to national law and devastating for the people involved, child marriage has become a common feature of desperation in communities. “We didn’t know that booking child brides was illegal”, a Murle chief lamented upon the closing of the first workshop day.

In the following days, the Pibor Women’s Empowerment Center witnessed history in the making as the customary law review workshop participants unanimously agreed to codify the criminalization of child marriage into Murle customary law.

As society and the world around it changes, disputes and conflict will still need resolving. As highlighted by the Twic East Dinka woman, it is vital that individuals most affected by decisions are included in these discussions. This is paramount in ensuring that communities will continue to enjoy stability amidst their increasingly volatile environments.

Hon. Famela Ajak, persuades her group on why a mother’s family should be awarded custody of children if the mother is killed by her husband in a group discussion during the Customary Law Review workshop in Pibor. Photo: IOM/ Pyry Salomo PAULASAARI

Since 2018, IOM has worked directly with communities across South Sudan on the review and codification of their customary laws. The review process offers a significant contribution towards peace, justice, and strong institutions through enabling women and youth to access, contribute to, and own processes. The programme also offers a platform whereby women have gained historic access to representation in local courts, as well as joined their communities in identifying harmful practices that are contrary to the Transitional Constitution of South Sudan.

In Jonglei State and GPAA, this review is supported by the UN Secretary-General’s Peacebuilding Fund (PBF) project “Local Solutions to Build Climate Resilience and Advance Peace and Stability in Bor, Pibor and Malakal”.

“The PBF is the organization's financial instrument of first resort to sustain peace in countries or situations at risk or affected by violent conflict. The Fund may invest with UN entities, governments, regional organizations, multilateral banks, national multi-donor trust funds or civil society organizations.

The Fund works across pillars and supports integrated UN responses to fill critical gaps; respond quickly and with flexibility to peacebuilding opportunities; and catalyze processes and resources in a risk-tolerant fashion

This story was written by Pyry Salomo PAULASAARI, IOM South Sudan’s Peacebuilding Project Officer (Conflict Resolution) as a part of a comprehensive study on mainstreaming climate-related considerations in dispute resolution mechanisms.