South Sudan

Still in danger: Women and girls face sexual violence in South Sudan despite peace deal


South Sudan, already one of the most difficult countries for women, has in recent years seen some of the highest levels of sexual violence in the world. Even before the civil war officially ended in September 2018, women and girls experienced high levels of gender-based violence (GBV) and had limited ways to address these crimes. Once civil war fueled by ethnic divisions engulfed the country in 2013, violence against women and girls grew even more pronounced. From 2013 until the end of 2018, soldiers on both sides of the conflict used sexual violence and torture, especially of women and girls, as part of their military strategies. Furthermore, a complete breakdown of the rule of law permitted armed men to operate with impunity throughout the conflict.

Although most political violence abated when the most recent peace agreement was signed in September 2018, conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) has persisted. Armed men, some affiliated with various military groups, continue to attack women and girls who are traveling. Additionally, widespread displacement—about 2.2 million people outside of the country and 1.5 million people within the country—exacerbates other risks to the safety of women and girls, including intimate partner violence and underage pregnancy.

The United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), humanitarian actors, and, in some cases, the government of South Sudan (GoSS) are trying to address these challenges, but the needs are massive and all of these actors must prioritize certain interventions so women and girls are safer in South Sudan.

The GoSS will need to build up basic governance capacity—a complicated and long-term endeavor. Meanwhile, the GoSS, UNMISS, the humanitarian community, and the United States must take immediate measures to address the acute challenges faced by women and girls, especially those who face the added vulnerability of being displaced.

Protection of Civilian sites (PoCs)—areas throughout the country that house some of the most vulnerable displaced people within or adjacent to UN bases—were set up as emergency measures to provide safe zones protected by UNMISS; however, women and girls in the PoCs are not particularly safe. Although UNMISS conducts some regular patrols, such as “firewood patrols”—when UNMISS troops escort women who collect firewood outside of the PoCs and are at risk of sexual violence—attacks on women and girls still occur near the PoCs and throughout the country. UNMISS has limited resources to expand their reach. To provide more effective protection and build respect for the rule of law, the GoSS needs to provide for citizens’ safety and security. The South Sudan National Police Service also has limited capacity and usually refers cases to customary courts.

The humanitarian sector has an outsized role to play in providing services for survivors of GBV. Psychosocial and health care programming is of particular urgency, especially for women and girls both inside and outside of the PoCs. Additionally, many men and women in South Sudan still are unaware of what constitutes GBV. To improve reporting and more effectively prevent GBV, men, women, boys, and girls both inside and outside of the PoCs need a better understanding of their rights and responsibilities.

The GoSS has the greatest responsibility for addressing violence against women and girls. Although the mobile court system, instituted in 2012 and restarted with UN support in 2018 to provide formal adjudication for serious crimes, constitutes a good start, its reach is limited in geographic coverage and capacity to address the backlog of cases. By the end of April 2019, the mobile courts had produced several dozen convictions—an important precedent, but not nearly enough to provide justice for the high number of GBV cases throughout the country.

The GoSS needs to expand the reach and capabilities of these mobile courts to adjudicate GBV cases across South Sudan. As the courts make decisions, it is important that the government also criminalizes marital rape to signal to both men and women that women and girls have inherent value. Finally, to move forward toward a sustainable peace, accountability for CRSV is a crucial step. The Hybrid Court of South Sudan, which the government already has agreed to set up with the African Union (AU) but has yet to be established, is the clearest path forward to provide accountability for the intense levels of violence women experienced during the active conflict.



Immediately sign the pending memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the AU to set up the Hybrid Court of South Sudan and ensure that the Court is operational as soon as possible so those responsible for CRSV are held accountable.

Continue to deploy mobile courts and expand their reach, especially in the northeast and northwest areas of the country, with the support of the UNMISS and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).

Build institutional capacity of the formal legal system by training local leaders, prosecutors, judges, and security services on statutory law, and training women police and judges.

Evaluate the broader set of legislation regarding women’s rights and change legislation to criminalize marital rape.


In coordination with humanitarian actors, conduct better analyses of where threats are located—both near the PoCs and farther afield—and prioritize high-quality patrolling of those areas.

Request additional peacekeeping troops to effectively protect the identified “hotspots” of sexual violence and roads on which women and girls travel to access services, which have increasingly moved outside the PoCs and formal camps for internally displaced people (IDPs).

Promote attention to human rights—particularly the rights of women and girls—in traditional courts by expanding human rights training programs for paralegals who deploy throughout the country, so traditional court decisions reflect human rights and more closely align with formal law.

Support the GoSS’s capacity to more appropriately handle GBV cases by increasing the number of Special Protection Units (SPUs) in police stations throughout the country, in accordance with the Human Rights Due Diligence Policy (HRDDP).


Maintain support for programs to address intimate partner violence and provide public education that includes men and boys.

Prioritize psychosocial support programs for survivors of CRSV.

Invest in specific programs targeting the unique needs of adolescent girls, including sexual and reproductive health (SRH) and the distribution of dignity kits, which provide feminine hygiene products and other necessary materials to women and girls of reproductive age.

Improve access to and quality of maternal health care, and train midwives on safe deliveries.

Conduct public outreach to inform communities about the mobile courts and how to access them.

Within the PoCs, increase the utility of safe spaces for women and girls, and strengthen community-based protection, including women’s committees and community watch groups.


Pressure the GoSS to implement all parts of the peace agreement, especially establishing the hybrid AU-South Sudanese court to ensure accountability for widespread sexual violence during the conflict.

Support renewal of the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan (CHRSS) to collect and document evidence of mass atrocities for use in trying those responsible for sexual violence.


Set up the Hybrid Court of South Sudan in cooperation with the GoSS; if the GoSS does not cooperate, proceed with evidence collection and recruiting personnel with gender and CRSV expertise.


Sustain high levels of humanitarian funding for South Sudan, with a focus on rehabilitating health centers that provide SRH both inside and outside of the PoCs, especially given the absence of U.S. funding for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).


In July and August 2019, a Refugees International team visited Juba and Malakal in South Sudan and interviewed dozens of UN, government, and nongovernmental organization (NGO) officials, as well as internally displaced people (IDPs) living in Protection of Civilian sites (PoCs) in Juba and Malakal. They also interviewed several local women’s groups. The team asked interviewees about the situation generally, but also focused on the unique challenges and protection risks that women and girls face in South Sudan, particularly inside PoCs. Although the PoCs house just 10 percent of all IDPs in South Sudan, they are an important microcosm of the larger issues IDPs face, and those living there are some of the most vulnerable and at risk. One of the main topics the Refugees International team researched was the preponderance of gender-based violence (GBV)—targeted violence against individuals or groups based on gender—in South Sudan and the lack of accountability associated with those crimes.