2021 - 16 Days of Activism

Grace Ikarak: Fighting 'girl-child compensation' in South Sudan

Grace Ikarak is a lawyer by profession. One of her success stories is the time she helped persuade a family to accept seven cows rather than a girl as compensation for the murder of a family member.

Eliminating the practice of “girl child compensation” among tribes in the Eastern Equatoria state of South Sudan is one of Grace’s goals while working as a lawyer and advocate for women’s rights.

Grace Ikarak: Fighting 'girl-child compensation' in South Sudan

She is extraordinarily patient, accepting that it takes time and education for the “progressive realization of a changed society” that it is wrong to use girls as commodities. Part of her work is teaching that all killings must be dealt with by legal measures, not by traditional cultural practices such as handing your daughter over as payment for a crime a family member had committed. There is a law to enforce this awaiting final stages in the legislature, she said.

Grace is 28. She works for the South Sudan Center for Development and Research as a program officer. Much of her time is spent providing legal advice and assistance to victims of gender-based violence in South Sudan. Violence against women is rampant, she said in an interview, because of prolonged conflicts in South Sudan, and cultural stereotypes. “In this system, women are considered lesser, and men are higher, and we are advocating to change this status quo.”

In addition, police often don’t cooperate with lawyers in cases of violence against women. There is a lot of corruption in the process, she said, and a shortage of finances and resources such as vehicles to get to emergencies in good time. “But we are doing our best to help our people even if on voluntary basis.”

Most of the women she and her three legal colleagues have helped are among thousands of people who live at Internally Displaced Persons camps outside the capital Juba or at Protection of Civilians sites. The protection sites were set up after thousands of people fled to the United Nations base in Juba when conflict broke out in South Sudan on December 15, 2013, marking the start of a civil war.

The war ended with the signing of the agreement for resolution of conflict in South Sudan in September 2015 but did not hold; fighting resumed in July 2016. There were already thousands of displaced people from the years of conflict before South Sudan gained independence from the Republic of Sudan in 2011 after a referendum.

An example of a case Grace settled that made her happy was that of a young woman who aborted a child because her parents said they didn’t want her to marry the child’s father. She was suicidal. Grace and her colleagues intervened after her parents had her arrested, showing the parents their daughter, 18, was old enough under the law to make her own decisions about who she marries. Grace said such family matters should be settled by arbitration like this one was, rather than in the courts.

The education system, especially, outside Juba was interrupted time and again by conflict but Grace managed to get her law degree in the capital where she grew up. “Women who have an education are not so many, so it is our duty to fight for those who are uneducated and support them in a legal way.”

What is the most rewarding, satisfying part of your work?

I consider this work as a part of me. I see it as reaching out and giving help to the people because they don’t know their rights and I am the one who knows their rights so I must do everything I can for them.

I’m motivated because our government is cooperating, giving more chances to women to participate in governance and leadership. Before, it was 25 % but now it’s 35 % (women legislators) so we have a chance of fighting this gender-based violence. We now have a female speaker for Upper House. A female deputy speaker for lower house. We also have female governors and deputy governors. These are the efforts of our advocacy. I also believe that if there’s a lot of women in government corruption will decrease. This country is rich, but the resources are embezzled by corrupt politicians who remain at large. We must fight this vice.

Is there a stigma attached to feminism in your experience like there is in the Republic of Sudan?

Yes, yes. It is the same community, north and South Sudan. We separated but there’s no difference in the character of the people. They treat women as less relevant. The role of women, let me say the majority of women, is restricted to the household or the kitchen and maybe taking care of the children and her husband. Although there is much freedom for women in South Sudan, those in rural areas still suffer from gender-based violence and other sexual-related discrimination. There is still this mindset on the differences between women and men. It’s high. They think someone who works for women’s rights is not normal. We’re just trying to get our rights, but they think you’re an enemy. They want to continue to perpetuate those ills.

You seem like a very patient person.

You need to have patience. Without patience you will not survive in this society. A lot of women have been divorced. Especially those who are activists. Their marriages will never survive. You sit with a male perpetrator to find why he’s taking an action against women and your husband accuses you of felony or cheating. These are normal for some of us.

What keeps you going?

What can I say? With the little support we are getting, I always convince myself ‘What else can I do? Sit at home? Let me fight for the people.’ It’s what keeps me going to work every day. There are thousands, thousands of people who don’t know their rights. We could change the mindsets of our people, but we are limited by poor roads, lack of mobility and finance. Sometimes, you need to take some of the victims for a medical check up; there are some court fees, and they cannot afford them.

Have you received advice from anyone that stays with you?

In most cases, I usually advise myself. I’m a person who, if I do anything, I have to sit back and visualize what has been gained. I usually advise myself that no matter what happens, you have to keep going, you have to do what makes you happy.

Advice for other young women activists?

My advice would be we are in this fight together. No matter where you are, no matter what the situation is, we are fighting as a woman for women, we are fighting together for our rights. No matter which continent you are on, if you fight for one woman it means you’re fighting for everyone. So, we just have to keep up our fight until we get the justice and equality that we deserve.

LEARN MORE

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/graciej.ojukwu