When lawyers Zainab, Wafaa and Amal recall their first experience of walking into family court in Khartoum, Sudan, they remember feeling trepidation, anxiety and anger. Not rage, but indignant anger for the depth of the rights violations they encountered.
The Sudanese constitution guarantees gender equality. But paradoxically, the “personal status laws” – which govern areas like marriage, divorce and custody – mandate a woman’s obedience to her husband. Women and girls must also have male guardians, usually a family member, who can exercise significant control over their lives – including the legal authority to consent to marriage on their behalf. In Sudan, a girl can be married as young as 10 years of age.
While the Sudanese Organization for Research and Development (SORD) is working to change the legal framework that discriminates against women, Zainab, Wafaa, Amal and the dozen or so other lawyers who work with SORD must still grapple with this legal system daily.
Under such a fundamentally patriarchal legal system, the lawyers struggled with how best to advocate for the women they represented. But these steadfast legal minds did not give up. With coordinated strategies, they are making change from within. And through persistence, patience and savvy legal arguments, they have made incredible strides.
SORD’s lawyers now work in four cities across the country. They have learned which legal arguments to use to gain divorces, custody arrangements and alimony for their clients – too many of whom are survivors of forced child marriages and violence. They educate the judges and appeal to their sense of humanity. Newer lawyers learn from more experienced ones. Though they do not always have the law on their side, they use everything else at their disposal to win favourable outcomes.
Wafaa, Zainab and Amal no longer struggle to know what to say or where to begin. They have found their voice and they are just beginning. Inter Pares is grateful to be able to support this courageous work.
The Sudanese constitution guarantees gender equality. But paradoxically, the “personal status laws” – which govern areas like marriage, divorce and custody – mandate a woman’s obedience to her husband.