Ending sexual violence – we must all act
The 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence Campaign ran from 25 November to 10 December and it is designed to raise awareness and spur institutions, governments, ordinary citizens into action to bring an end to violence against women and girls. Campaigns of this nature remain vital especially when the perpetrators of sexual violence know no restraint. According to the UN, over the course of 12 days this month, coinciding with the 16 days of Activism, 150 women and girls were raped in the north of South Sudan.
South Sudan gained independence from Sudan in 2011 and shortly after the young nation was engulfed in violence as the government forces, opposition forces and multiple militia groups, battled for control and power.
To date, an estimated 400 000 people have been killed and 2 million displaced since the conflict began. Grave war crimes and crimes against humanity continue to be perpetrated and sexual violence remains alarmingly prevalent.
Between 22 November and 4 December, 150 women and girls sought medical attention after being sexually violated near the northern city of Bentiu, a government-controlled area.
According to the survivors, many of the perpetrators wore government issued military uniforms. The women and girls were mostly targeted whilst on route to emergency food distribution centres where their attackers lay in wait.
The Washington Post reports that by mid 2018 an estimated 2300 cases of sexual violence were reported to aid groups in South Sudan and that 20 percent of the victims were children, some of them under the age of 10. Aid workers report that even pregnant women and the elderly have been attacked.
These are just the cases that have been reported. Sexual violence is heavily underreported making it very difficult to determine how many women and girls have suffered at the hands of perpetrators who seem to thrive in an environment of impunity. Rape is being used as a tool of war by all sides of the conflict.
According to the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan, violations include mutilation of sexual organs, rape, gang rape, and other acts of sexual violence primarily committed in front of the victim’s community in order to cause humiliation. Other organisations report that sexual slavery is widespread, and that men are sometimes forced to rape their female relatives.
In many communities, survivors are shamed into silence and wives are shunned by their husbands and families due to the stigma surrounding rape and sexual violence. In some instances, women and girls have been ordered to marry their attackers as per decisions made by traditional dispute resolution mechanisms.
The UN has condemned the attacks near Bentiu and called on local government authorities to act, conduct investigations and bring the perpetrators to account. They are not the only ones calling for accountability to combat the scourge of sexual violence in South Sudan.
Non-profit think tank, Legal Action Worldwide (LAW), lodged a case against the Government of South Sudan with the UN Committee on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in Geneva.
They are representing 30 women and girls who were sexually violated by government forces including the People’s Defence Forces (SSPDF) and formerly the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and the Presidential Guard. The women and girls were subjected to sexual violence, sexual slavery, sexual torture, rape and gang rape during attacks on their villages between June 2016 and September 2017.
According to LAW, one of the victims was 12 years old when she was raped, another was 42 when she was gang raped by soldiers whilst “another soldier blew a whistle indicating when the perpetrators should finish.”
The South Sudanese government has responded to the allegations by saying that LAW is seeking to destabilise the country and alleging that they have a hidden agenda.
During these 16 days of Activism, my articles have been centered around sexual harassment and sexual violence including the recent scandal at the African Union. Even as the 16 days of activism come to an end, continuing to raise awareness about the rampant and wanton commission of sexual violence remains at the forefront of my mind.
Last week I walked into a restaurant in the Hague and sitting at a table next to mine was none other than Nobel Laureate Dr. Denis Mukwege whom I wrote about here. My fortuitous encounter and brief discussion with Mukwege served as affirmation of the importance of keeping this issue in the public domain.
Mukwege is the surgeon from the Democratic Republic of Congo who has dedicated his life to medically and surgically assisting survivors of brutal sexual violence, restoring their dignity and reminding them that they have not been forgotten.
It is activists like Mukwege who inspire and led by example, reminding us all to head the call of South Africa’s, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, head of the UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, (UN Women), that it is time “to band together and take a stand on the changes that must happen so that girls and women are heard and their experiences are taken seriously.
**This article appeared first in the Star Newspaper on 13 December 2018