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Role of Traditional Leaders and Customary Justice Mechanisms

Traditional leaders, such as chefs, elders, and customary judges have a critical role to play in reducing violence against widows. For many women around the world, community-based, customary justice mechanisms are the only available method of redress. While traditional practices often are used to justify violence, culture is dynamic and can change through training, public education, and access to new information.

  • Legislation should allocate funds to train customary and traditional leaders on violence against women and violence against widows specifically.
  • Legislation should allocate funds to train customary and traditional leaders on inheritance and succession practices that protect women’s and girls’ rights and provide enhanced tenure security.
  • Legislation should support the development of paralegal systems that bridge the gap between formal laws and justice systems and the customary governance systems that control many women’s daily lives.
  • Legislation should consider creating explicit links and channels through which information can flow between the customary and formal justice sectors to ensure better monitoring of cases of violence against women, in particular widows.

Illustrative Examples: 

Kenya: The Turkana Women in Development Organization (TWADO) runs a paralegal program specifically focused on monitoring cases that involve violence against women and children in the remote Turkana region of Kenya. Women paralegals are trained on human rights, gender equity, and relevant Kenyan laws. They are then seconded to customary dispute resolution processes in Turkana, where they provide input to cases that relate to women’s rights. They also monitor the system for cases that should be referred to the formal courts and encourage families to use that process. 

Togo: The NGO Alafia, in conjunction with UN Women, provided training for community leaders and other stakeholders on the rights of women and widows in particular. The training assisted the local chief in Woame, Kloto Prefecture to make determinations in inheritance cases. When confronted with a case of a brother who was threatening to kill his sisters if they did not forfeit all property after the death of their father, the Chief ruled that the estate should be equitably divided in accordance with the Togolese family code.  See: Fighting widowhood practices that enable violence against women In Togo, OHCHR, n.d.

Zambia: Women for Change in Zambia uses grassroots, human rights education to conduct community dialogues on traditional norms and practices in rural communities. The group established a Traditional Leaders Programme that works with chiefs and village heads to re-examine and abolish customs that discriminate against women including early marriage. Using local trainings, community dialogues, regional SADC trainings for traditional elders, and international exchanges between traditional leaders in Zambia and Tanzania the program has seen important impacts, such as the banning of widow-cleansing practices by chiefs along with fines imposed upon those found engaging in the practice, as well as the appointment of women village headpersons.

See: DFID How To Note: A Practical Guide on Community Programming on Violence against Women and Girls, 2012.