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Winner Africa Thesis Award 2022: Robert Okello

The winner of the Africa Thesis Award 2022 is Robert Okello for his thesis on rural women’s legal empowerment through digital technology in Northern Uganda. Robert did his Master in Development Studies at the International Institute of Social Studies, Erasmus University Rotterdam.

Digital technology for legal assistance in Uganda

According to the jury, in his ‘excellent and carefully researched’ thesis, Robert Okello eloquently elaborates on the possibilities of digital technology when offering legal assistance to women in Northern Uganda. He convincingly shows how digital technology can offer meaningful support to certain (groups of) women, while also pointing at the risks posed by these technologies, e.g. to exclude others. The award consists of a prize of 500 euros, publication of the thesis in the ASCL’s African Studies Collection and an invitation to present the thesis at an award ceremony in 2023.

Unresolved disputes

Over 90 percent of Ugandans face justice problems and can’t solve their justice needs. The Justice system is complex to navigate, expensive and has a very limited number of legal professionals available to handle the legal needs of all Ugandans. This has led to an overwhelming increase in reported unresolved disputes, high flagrant absence of justice, growing gender inequalities and, to some extent, the use of mob justice to resolve conflicts.

Apps for access to justice

Consequently, over the years, several Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and government agencies have adopted ways that can help facilitate access to legal aids and justice for disadvantaged communities. Some legal innovators and NGOs have come up with innovative projects by deploying digital tools, such as apps, in an effort to make access to justice available to these disadvantaged communities.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Mr Okello was forced to organise the fieldwork part of his research from afar. He organised Focus Group Discussions through research assistance in Northern Uganda. Data for the study was collected in the rural Gulu area. The data was then analysed through the lens of Legal Empowerment (LE) and Access to Justice frameworks, to make sense of the information generated.

Obstacles remain

Findings suggest that digital technology can play a significant role in addressing the unmet legal needs of rural women in Uganda. Many women have reported being able to use digital interfaces to access legal help, evaluate their problems and decide whether the problems have legal solutions. These technologies have also helped women with preparation of evidence and making sense of laws and legal documentation.

However, obstacles remain. These include lack of legal knowledge and awareness, poverty, lack of access to mobile phones, illiteracy, lack of telecommunication infrastructure, power inequalities and the attitudes of some lawyers. These factors still hinder some rural women from using digital technology to access justice. Some women also emphasised that introducing digital technologies to secure women’s legal empowerment may put the cart before the horse, as long as corruption of Uganda’s legal and court system remains pervasive.

About the Africa Thesis Award

With the Africa Thesis Award the African Studies Centre Leiden aims to encourage student’s research and writing on African topics and to promote the study of African cultures and societies. More information can be found on the website of the ASCL.

Top photo: Women legal outreaches of the NGO Barefootlaw in Uganda. 

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