World is ‘averting its eyes’ from sexual violence in South Sudan, U.N. says

A looted ICRC base in Leer, South Sudan, is seen in an archive photo from May 2015. (Credit: NC-ND / ICRC / Pawel Krzysiek)

Since the start of fighting in South Sudan, 72 percent of women living in four protected civilian sites in Juba said they had been raped, primarily by police and soldiers who are there to provide protection, according to a new U.N. report.

“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 Yasmin Sooka, chairwoman of the U.N. independent Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan, in December.

Soldiers with the Sudan People’s Liberation Army attacked civilians during their battle against rebels in July. More than 200 cases of sexual violence were reported to have occurred during the fighting, the U.N. found. News that Western aid workers were among the rape victims brought the attacks to global attention. The harrowing stories of the aid workers showed the indiscriminate and brutal violence carried out by government forces.

“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,” said Sooka in December.

Attempts to raise awareness and prevent sexual violence in South Sudan are not working. The U.N. Human Rights Office’s report on South Sudan a year ago described the same problem. It documents a government-operated “scorched-earth policy” that deliberately targets civilians for rape and murder. Worse yet, the attacks take place aside from the military operations that also harm and endanger civilians.

The latest report tells the same story. Sexual violence in South Sudan has reached “epic proportions,” said the U.N.’s human rights office. South Sudanese forces are responsible for killings, torture, rape and beatings in Western Equatorial state. U.N. peacekeepers found the dead bodies of executed civilians on two occasions in late 2016. In one case, seven soldiers tied five women to a tree before raping and beating them. One of the women was five months pregnant. She suffered a miscarriage three weeks after the attack.

To make matters worse, the medical care available is “grossly inadequate,” according to the report. Some of the women interviewed did not receive medical assistance for their injuries from attacks. And there are other women who do not come forward after an attack due to fear of stigma. There is also little support for the mental trauma caused by the attacks.

The only justice mechanism available is mediation conducted by village elders. One woman said her attacker was ordered to pay a small sum of money or a goat to atone for his crime.

“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 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.”

The escalation of sexual violence is tied to the resumption of fighting. In early March, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Gutterres said the prospect of genocide “considerably diminished,” but expressed concerns about the stalled peace process and ongoing violence. The push for an independent investigation is to help the soon-to-be established hybrid court do its job.

“Critical evidence is being lost every day as witnesses are killed or disappear, as memories fade, and physical evidence degrades,” said U.N. Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan member Ken Scott, in a statement, “which means investigations need to start now so the hybrid court has cases to hear.”

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.