Sexual violence has reached epic proportions in the conflict in South Sudan and requires the urgent attention of the world, said the UN independent Commission* on Human Rights in South Sudan after a ten-day visit during which they met women survivors around the country.
“The scale of gang rape of civilian women as well as the horrendous nature of the rapes by armed men belonging to all groups is utterly repugnant and what’s worse is that there is no sense of outrage about this horror,” said the chairperson of the Commission, Yasmin Sooka. “There was justifiable uproar when international humanitarian workers were gang raped in July in the capital Juba but the fact of the matter is that it is happening to South Sudanese women on a daily basis and the world is just averting its eyes.”
The Commission intends to call for the establishment of a special investigative team to go to South Sudan to collect evidence of the rapes so as to form the basis of prosecutions for the future. The Commission urges the Government of South Sudan and those in control of opposition territories to give UN investigators unfettered access to all areas of the country.
While in South Sudan, the Commission interviewed a rape survivor whose case was mediated by village elders who ordered the perpetrator to pay compensation of a goat and a small sum of money. For many women this sort of informal mediation system is the only justice system available.
“It is mind boggling that a woman’s suffering and its lifelong impact has so little value, not to mention that serious crimes like rape must be tried in a court of law with due process,” said Commissioner Ken Scott.
In the capital Juba, a UN survey found seventy percent of women in Juba had suffered sexual assault since December 2013. In the outbreak of violence in the capital in July, hundreds of women reported rape. The Commission met several who had still not received the necessary medical treatment for terrible injures they sustained. An elderly woman who had left the camp to search for food thought her age would protect her from assault, only to experience beating and rape at the hands of soldiers who she said were young enough to be her sons. She explained the ethnic nature of the attacks by describing how the soldiers grabbed her cheeks, making derogatory references to her tribal markings. After the assault, her shattered body was transported back to the camp in a wheelbarrow by a passerby. Another woman who was five months pregnant described going out of the camp with four other women, all of whom were each gang raped by seven soldiers. She suffered a miscarriage afterwards but described how one of her companions died after being sexually mutilated. Rape survivors also suffer the stigma and shame of the rape with many indicating that their husbands had left them, blaming them for the rape. They are also ostracized by the community resulting in deep trauma. This has also raised concern about the longer-term psychosocial well-being of survivors.
In Bentiu in Unity State, the Commission heard of a number of women raped by soldiers outside the camp for displaced people on the day they visited. Despite the stigma, a woman in Bentiu described in a public meeting how she was raped and threatened with death by soldiers in Leer three days prior to the Commission’s visit and was still searching for her husband after the attack on their village. “There is no stigma around rape because for us it is normal; it is happening every day to us,” she said, “I am speaking out because I am someone who has been attacked but I want to say yes to life.” In Malakal in Upper Nile State, the UN Population Fund indicated that one in five women in the Protection of Civilian camp reported being sexually violated since the outbreak of the conflict. However conflict-related sexual violence mostly goes unreported.
The Commission also heard reports of women being abducted and subjected to sexual slavery by armed groups who move them from house to house resulting in the girls not being found. Women have also been raped inside displacement camps, and there are increasingly high levels of domestic violence.
“What concerns us is the pattern of sexual violence targeting women all over the country, the fact that rape is one of the tools being used for ethnic cleansing and the absolute impunity for these crimes,” said Ms. Sooka. All commanders at every level have an affirmative responsibility to prevent and punish rape and other sexual violence. The Commission believes the only way to curb the “normalization” of rape is to conduct investigations leading to prosecution for those in command.