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The Effect Of Plural Legal Systems On The Rights Of Women

It was quite distressing to read a story recently published in a Zambian newspaper, about a woman aged 30, who was brutally attacked. She was allegedly beaten by men supposedly carrying out the orders of the Chief in her village, who it is believed, presided over her case which she brought before the traditional court. She sustained a broken spine, serious swelling to parts of her body and is now bedridden. She can no longer go about her daily routine of working on her farm which provides an income for her and her elderly parents as well as other family members. Apparently this woman's offence which resulted in the brutal beating that nearly killed her, was the fact that she contested the verdict by the traditional court.

This case highlights the problems that women in developing countries who are subject to plural legal systems (customary and English law) face. It is evident that plural legal systems mostly found in patriarchal societies hurt the rights of women who remain under represented in the judicial systems of many countries. Here is a woman trying to exercise the right to have her case heard only to end up with life threatening injuries.

Most women living in developing countries that were once British colonies, tend to be subject to plural legal systems which operate in an incoherent way. The patriarchal institutions in place particularly the traditional courts which heavily rely on customary law, continue to maintain the status quo with no indication that things are moving towards adapting to the needs of a 21st century world.

These courts where the Chiefs are at liberty to generate their own rules and procedures, are structured in a way that has led to abuse of
power by those in authority who often insist on induced compliance of the decisions they make. Subjugation of women is institutionalised in these courts that are now a legacy of a bygone era.

The thrust of the argument is not that customary justice should be relegated to the past. The need to preserve long standing traditions relevant to dispute resolution remains. There is however, a need for coherence and uniformity in the law to ensure that the legal remedies available in traditional courts are in compliance with state constitutional enactments.

A good number of traditional courts that exist where no women are present to provide a balance to the arguments presented, deny women equal opportunities before the law. There are no mechanisms in place to prevent the arbitrary use of power by the chief who presides over the case and also ensures that his pronouncements are enforced. The lack of gender balance does not inspire trust, credibility and confidence.

Dual legal systems found in many parts of the African continent are known to promote random application of legal remedies which can have long term effects in the stability of the judicial landscape. Traditional court systems which tend to operate in a semi-autonomous manner in a bid to preserve traditional ways of living in communities, need to be brought in line with constitutional requirements of their nations in order to serve the rights of women as well as other marginalised groups.

This story was written for World Pulse’s Ending Violence Against Women Digital Action Campaign.

World Pulse believes that women's stories, recommendations, and collective rising leadership can—and will—bring an end to gender-based violence. The EVAW Campaign elicits powerful content from women on the ground, strengthens their confidence as vocal grassroots leaders, and ensures that influencers and powerful institutions hear their stories.
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cece's picture

Don't Understand

Thank you for helping me to begin to understand the court system in developing countries. I still don't understand how they work and what constitute the way they treat women. Continue sharing your story to help people understand. You are doing the right thing and change will come.



We are blessed to have many Sisters!


Kabukabu Ikwueme's picture

Plural legal systems

Thank you for your comment. Having spent so many years in the western world, I too still have a lot to learn about legal systems in developing countries and the challenges that marginalised people face in accessing legal services. Generally most countries have a dual system where customary law is applied alongside laws enacted by legislative bodies of African countries as well as some Asian countries.

The complexities stem from the fact that traditional laws that were in place before
the colonial administrations in these countries where in place, continued to be applied long after countries had been independent with a constitution in place. Despite calls for customary laws to be brought in line with the constitutions of most countries which tend to focus on equality, very little progress has been made with regards to the treatment of women.

cmphung's picture

Legal systems

Thank you for this information about plural legal systems. I was unaware of this practice in some countries. In Canada we have plural systems for some Aboriginal communities and here they work in tandem with the regular system. They administer judgement based on traditional or customary law but within the confines of societal law. This idea of customary law and how it seems unfairly distributed is shocking. I guess this is one of the by products of patriarchical society and colonialism.

Charlene Phung MPH

Kabukabu Ikwueme's picture

legal systems

It really is a by product of patriarchal society and colonialism. Thanks for your comment.

viochan's picture

Great Post

Dear Kabukabu,
One of the things I love most about this forum is that just when I thought I understood the many angles of a problem or issue, I find a post -- like yours -- that blows my mind and enlightens me, offering a new take, view or approach. Thank you so much for sharing your ideas with us.

In partnership,


Kabukabu Ikwueme's picture

Plural legal systems

Thank you Violeta. Forums like this provide a fantastic platform to share and collaborate. I am so glad to be a part of it
Sharing and learning.

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