In a ten-day period in November 2018, more than 125 women and girls were raped, beaten, and robbed in the town of Bentiu in South Sudan. The attacks happened in broad daylight, as these women and girls were on their way to food distribution sites. Research shows that understanding this violence against women and girls in the context of the ongoing conflict means understanding the continuum of gender-based violence before, during, and after conflict. In order to build peace in South Sudan, prevention of violence against women has been found to be a large contributing factor.
On February 27th, IPI with support from CARE International, the Global Women’s Institute (GWI), and the International Rescue Committee (IRC) held a closed-door roundtable to address how South Sudan came to have some of the highest rates of violence against women and girls in the world and how it can be prevented. Experts gathered to address this topic in the lead-up to the renewal of the United Nations Peacekeeping Mission in South Sudan’s (UNMISS) mandate in March.
The meeting, held under the Chatham House rule of non-attribution, was comprised of civil society leaders, member states, UN entities, and gender-based violence experts from South Sudan. Participants reflected on the key findings of two research reports that are part of the “What Works to Prevent Violence Against Women and Girls” program, highlighting that conflict exacerbates all types of violence against women and girls, including intimate partner violence.
Tackling violence against women and girls is critical to achieving sustainable peace in South Sudan, as is women’s political participation. But women in South Sudan have been largely excluded from the peace process and wider political conversations. The reports also concluded that institutions that work on women’s rights during the critical post-conflict phase play a significant role in efforts to eliminate violence against women and girls and in the advancement of a more peaceful society.
Drawing on the research on violence against women and girls in South Sudan, participants made the case for women and girls to be central actors in state building and peace building efforts.
Addressing gender-based violence is difficult in all settings, but in South Sudan, survivors and service providers face heightened challenges around reporting allegations of violence that hamper the delivery of legal and psychological support and medical aid to survivors. Furthermore, in a society where gender inequality is so deeply ingrained, it can be nearly impossible to hold perpetrators to account for the crimes they have committed.
One discussant reinforced this point, saying that in conditions like those in South Sudan, we must pursue the most innovative solutions to gender-based violence emergencies. Humanitarian actors must find ways to make rapid lifesaving response possible. While a comprehensive case-management system requires resources that are currently unavailable in this context, one viable solution could be offering basic healthcare, a participating humanitarian expert suggested.
Another hurdle in preventing gender-based violence is the lack of accountability for perpetrators both by local governments and the international community. Discussants surfaced the obstacles to legal protection for the victims and the need to change laws that protect violators, including those that allow perpetrators of sexual crimes to marry their victims. This often devalues evidence of abuse and makes seeking recourse even more difficult for survivors.
Participants noted that while issues such as health and food security get more significant funding, action to curb gender-based violence does not. One recommended that humanitarian actors seek out stronger collaboration with peacekeepers in enforcing peace and security in South Sudan. Participants warned that necessary changes will require sustained long term investment and effort.
Experts noted that in conflict settings, the incidence of gender-based violence increases. One participant offered the figure that women who had experienced armed attacks and/or conflict are twice as likely to experience rape or attempted rape and intimate partner violence. Research makes it clear that in conflicts, it is women who bear a disproportionate burden, according to the report. This is, in part, because women in South Sudan are seen only as the value of their dowry and not as human, according to a South Sudanese participant. Rape is an effective weapon of war, in which women are seen as strategic targets. “They accept that they have to live with it,” she said. As to the question of justice, she responded with an emphasis on women’s involvement in all stages of negotiating and implementing the peace process and its outcomes.
Meanwhile, humanitarian organizations on the ground are striving to find the means to prevent violence and provide victims with assistance. One such measure is to alert victims when a perpetrator is released from investigative questioning or arrest. Ultimately, a participant recommended that legal protection for the victims would be necessary, as well as changing laws that protect violators.
In order to prosecute perpetrators, safe and ethical data collection is needed with responsible monitoring and calculating, said one discussant. A key point was that information sharing practices should be formalized. In the renewal of the UNMISS mandate, this would mean finding simple ways to make information-sharing practices more systematic in the field. At headquarters, this would translate into looking at mandates for management positions. A draft toolkit for donors was recommended on how to implement this into internal work. In addition, holding discussions between UN peacekeepers and humanitarian workers could improve collaboration and identify hotspots
Ultimately participants stressed the necessity for collaboration between the international community and regional actors for prevention of violence against women and girls in South Sudan. However, concluded one participant, real transformation takes place only with the consultation, participation, and expertise of women, and in addressing gender equality at every level.
IPI Senior Fellow Sarah Taylor moderated.