In a rare occurrence, there is currently a woman chief in South Sudan, specifically in the Nuer ethnic group.
Chiefs within the African nation hold a special position in society. According to Rachel Ibreck, a politics and international relations lecturer at the University of London, “Chiefs are in a position to make changes to social norms and arrangements. They derive authority from their status as a formal institution of local government. Their legitimacy rests upon their relationships with the people who select them.”
In short, chiefs like Chatim are able to influence socio-political decisions in their regions through their social status and prestige. It was this very prestige which increased Chatim’s popularity with the former senior chief and a group of male paralegals: the very individuals who elected the woman chief in South Sudan.
Chatim and other chiefs are vital to maintaining order in South Sudan. While the United Nations’ peacekeeping forces in Protection of Civilians (PoC) don’t formally recognize the legal authority of South Sudanese chiefs, the absence of proper legal systems in refugee camps means chiefs are often the de facto judiciaries.
An uptick in violence and criminal behavior – particularly those perpetrated against women – has led to growing reliance on the chiefs’ courts. This is particularly important in South Sudan, a nation that has been embroiled in civil war since the end of 2013.
An estimated 383,000 deaths combined with outright human rights abuses has forced the South Sudanese government to declare a state of emergency across large portions of the country. This violence is disproportionately wrought against women and young girls. In the city of Rumbek alone, 73% of women reported violence from a partner in their lifetime.
So what does it mean to be a woman chief in South Sudan?
Quite a lot. The new chief has the unique opportunity to exact change in South Sudan with the backing of the United Nations. She could effectively lead a localized women’s rights movement regardless of the external situation. The network of young paralegals she has built over her life is a major tool which could help Chatim take the steps necessary to nationalize the movement. Their motivation stems from a want to make sure their “sisters and daughters [are] not ‘treated as resources.’”
Yet there are still hurdles to overcome. Chatim and the Nuer people are largely displaced from their native lands and are reliant on the generosity of a lackluster UN Peacekeeping force.
Despite this, welcome change is on the horizon for the women and young girls of South Sudan, thanks to Rebecca Nyandier Chatim, the new woman chief of South Sudan.
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