Often the abuses that women and girls face during conflicts are ignored and under reported, especially when it comes to sexual violence, due to fear of social stigma and punishment. It is important to draw attention to the way in which conflict affects women and men differently. This article aims to raise awareness about the crisis in South Sudan, with a particular focus on how women and girls are affected by the conflict.
A conflict of severe magnitude in terms of Human Rights violations broke out in South Sudan towards the end of last year. South Sudan is the youngest country in the world, however, the path to its independence and reconstruction has been extremely difficult for the Sudanese people. The conflict has been escalating since it erupted in December. The international community have been ringing the alarms bells ever since, calling for attention and urgent humanitarian assistance. However, the information we receive about South Sudan in the west is very limited, at least in terms of the mainstream media. The lack of reporting masks the gravity of the situation: the numbers of people in need are alarming and women and girls are disproportionately affected. Since the conflict started, 923,000 Sudanese people have been internally displaced and thousands have become refugees in neighbouring countries of which many are women.
Although gender based violence is not exclusive to conflict situations, it is exacerbated during conflict. Rape as a weapon of war has been widely used in many different conflicts in the world. Sexual violence has been inflicted on women and girls as a method to exercise social control, to humiliate and demoralize the enemy and to dominate or forcibly relocate civilian members of a community or ethnic group. In the case of South Sudan´s conflict, according to the statement given by the UN Women Executive Director at the Security Council briefings on South Sudan, 40 per cent of South Sudanese women have been affected by physical and sexual violence. Also, according to the UN News Centre, parties involved in the conflict have been calling men from one community to commit sexual abuses to women from another community. In fact, more personal testimonies like this one from missionary sister Elena Balatti highlight the violence taking place against women in this conflict: “Before taking the plane to Juba I brought a 12 year old girl who was part of a group of 9 young girls who had been raped in the Church of Christ the King to the Red Cross hospital.”
During conflict, women are not only targets for sexual abuse: conflict also disrupts their gender roles and due to the conflict many women suddenly become the head of the household. For example, women are forced to flee their towns and seek protection for their children and themselves, while their husbands and elder sons are often killed or recruited. Also, young girls who lose their parents have to become the main carers for their younger siblings.
In fact, according to the same statement by the UN Women Executive Director, 58 per cent of households are female headed and 34 per cent of households are missing one or more family members. This sudden change of gender role often occurs in hostile and challenging circumstances for many women. They must deal with the consequences of the traumatic experience they faced, the new conditions they find themselves in and life inside the refugee camps, where they are not necessarily safe from violence, whilst carrying the responsibility for the well being of their children.
As can be found in different reports from organisations working in the region, women are still vulnerable to sexual harassment while they carry out daily duties like fetching water. In South Sudan it is common for women to fetch water for the household and the journey to do this daily task puts women at high risk. Access to latrines is also a challenge for women. Latrines in refugee camps are not sufficient and do not provide the privacy and safety women need.
Finally, it is crucial that justice, humanitarian aid and peace building include women´s needs and demands. It is also important that sexual abuses are penalised because they fall into the category of prohibited weapons/tactics of war, and it is equally important that victims receive reparations for their injuries. As the Special Representative of the Secretary General on Sexual Violence in conflict, Zainab Hawa Bangura said “It is time that rape is treated as a security issue with real consequences, not a second-class crime that happens to second-class citizens… this war tactic is as effective as any bomb and as destructive as any mine, and it needs to be addressed with the same determination as any other deadly weapon used in war”.
By Gaby Rojas Pérez
Gabriela has an MA in Gender and Development from the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) and has worked in armed conflict contexts as a project manager in South America.