For many years, perception surveys have ranked the Judiciary as one of the most difficult institutions to navigate in Uganda - the general perception is that a poor person can never win a case. While this may not be true, the perception continues to persist, especially among those who may not have the resources (knowledge, finances or time) to navigate through the system themselves.
This is particularly the case in refugee hosting districts such as Terego District, where justice services are often located far from where people live and where communities may feel they do not have the resources needed to pursue a case. Among refugees and host community members living in Rhino Camp in Terego, the formal justice system is perceived to be slow, geographically distant, ineffective and “unfair”.
As this attitude prevails, many legal cases, including criminal cases, are not brought to formal justice system institutions such as police, prosecutor or courts. This leads to a situation in which many cases of, for example, sexual and gender-based violence, go unreported. Perpetrators of crimes such as rape, sexual assault or defilement are often not held accountable for their actions.
UNDP, through the EU-UN Spotlight Initiative, is committed to end impunity for crimes related to violence against women and children. It is therefore key that women, children and community members are equipped with the knowledge, confidence and resources to report these cases when they happen.
To make the Judiciary and other legal services more accessible and relatable to people in refugee and host communities, the Legal Aid Service Providers Network (LASPNET) was supported by the EU-UN Spotlight Initiative through UNDP to raise awareness among refugees and host communities in Terego district on access to justice and gender-based violence. Through a Legal Aid Open Day on 7 October 2020, LASPNET ensured that people were not only sensitized on the justice system in Uganda, but that community members were able to receive legal aid consultations if needed.
Emanuel Akullo was one of the 193 participants who attended the Open Day in Rhino Camp. Being a youth representative for his subcounty, he had been assisting LASPNET with mobilizing his community to attend. However, as he had never attended a Legal Aid Open Day before, he was not sure what to expect. Emanuel feared interaction with the courts – if he would be summoned as a witness to testify in court, he would not do it. He had heard that if you do, you will get in trouble yourself.
So, when he subsequently attended the event a few days later, he was positively surprised. A lot of people had showed up – not only people from his community but legal officers, lawyers, the Resident Judge of Arua, Hon. Justice Issa Sserunkuma, and other stakeholders. For the first time in his life, Emanuel could interact one-on-one with people working within the formal justice system. The stakeholders talked about where and how to interact with the Judiciary, legal aid service providers, and about how to report cases of sexual and gender-based violence.
Walking home from the Legal Aid Open Day, Emanuel realized that many of his preconceptions about the formal justice system were proven wrong. He had always thought that justice services were costly – now he knew that many services are free-of-charge and most processes are open to the public. Hearing other community members testifying that rape and defilement cases are high, and that survivors often are denied equitable justice, Emanuel also felt compelled to become a community advocate to help bring an end to gender-based violence.
Six months after the Legal Aid Open Day, Emanuel is now serving as a role model in his community by raising awareness about issues of violence against women and children. As he knows about how and where to report, he can help people who are not familiar with the justice system themselves. Before the Legal Aid Open Day, Emanuel had never set his foot in a courtroom - now he has attended several public hearings purely out of curiosity.
“I feel confident about processes and how to register a case now. I want to become a community advocate to help transform my community for the better, so that we can end gender-based violence,” says Emanuel. “The Legal Aid Open Day was truly an eyeopener for me.”
In 2021, the EU-UN Spotlight Initiative through UNDP and LASPNET will also support a Legal Aid Open Day in Kyegegwa District.