The South Sudan crisis since 2013 has caused untold suffering to South Sudanese women. They have experienced displacement, loss of family members and gross human rights violations, including sexual assault and rape.
Women have often been targeted by armed forces and paramilitary groups. According to UN reports, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, INGO reports and humanitarian workers, women and girls are sometimes targeted because of their ethnic affiliation to the leaders and members of the fighting forces, or as a humiliation tactic when they are present in ‘enemy’ territory.
As fighting continues through the country, South Sudanese women continue to suffer sexual violence and rape at the hands of armed groups. Sexual and Gender Based Violence (SGBV) is rampant in the communities and perpetrators often kill or harm the victims after the act. In 2018, the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) reported 175 women and girls were victims of rape and sexual or physical assault in Northern Unity state alone, most of them in Bentiu. This corroborates a report by Médicins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Bentiu that indicates more than 125 women victims of sexual assault were raped within a period of two weeks. Another recent report estimates that 65% of women and girls have experienced physical or sexual violence. Yasmin Sooka, UN Commissioner, Office of the Commissioner for Human Rights reiterated the fact that victims of rape have not gotten justice and perpetrators remain at large without accounting for their deeds. In Yei, despite women on a daily basis reporting cases of sexual violence to the authorities in 2018, there was no justice done and perpetrators are left free. Several incidences of sexual violence continue to be reported, for instance, in Juba, an 8-year-old was raped in the Gudele area; in Sherikhat an 18-year-old was gang-raped, while in Lakes, young girls below 18 years have been forced into marriage against their will. Currently, Covid-19 exacerbates women’s suffering from sexual and gender-based violence including at the household level.
The government is under pressure to respond to this crisis of violence against women. It established a fact-finding mission to investigate the Bentiu rape allegations, but the initial report was inconclusive regarding rape claims and the second committee’s report is yet to be made public. So far, no legal due process has been initiated to bring perpetrators to justice. In August 2020, the South Sudanese government with support from international partners such as UNDP instituted a special Mobile Court to try the Yei rape cases. This followed reports from the UN and monitoring reports on the gang-rape of 19 women and girls. CSOs and women rights organizations have been monitoring the trial processes to date and although there is hope that these legal procedures might bring justice for the victims, there is fear that no compensation will be paid.
In only one case have soldiers been brought to justice for wartime rapes. The Terrain trial sentenced 10 South Sudanese soldiers for the raping of an international aid workers and the murder of a South Sudanese journalist. Although the military tribunal did award some compensation, this did not match the level of trauma the victims went through, including the loss of dignity, jobs and humiliation suffered. The judge awarded $2.5 million to the Terrain compound for losses of property and business compensation but only $4000 for each rape victim. The case was appealed to the Supreme Court, but remains in suspension as the file was reported missing. Meanwhile, South Sudanese victims of rape in Kubi have been neglected, despite calls for justice by the church. There was also no success in bringing up cases of sexual assault against armed opposition groups party to the SPLM-IO who attacked the church in Bor in 2013 and gang-raped women and girls. Similarly, women, girls, boys, and some men who suffered sexual assault in armed violence around South Sudan, including Malakal, Bentiu, Western Equatoria and Western Bahr El Ghazal, have yet to see any form of justice.
Women’s access to justice remains challenging and perpetrators remain at large, despite the Bill of Rights enshrined in the Transitional Constitution of South Sudan 2011 and the ratification of international human rights instruments such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW); the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR); the Maputo Protocol on Rights of Women; and UN Security Council Resolution 1325. The lack of political will to bring justice to victims and to hold perpetrators accountable is linked to the deliberate denial of rampant sexual violence against women and girls. Continuous violations of the ceasefire and the issue of inter-communal revenge violence both pose major risks to achieving peace and security while hampering access to justice for many victims, especially women and girls. Legal frameworks do not offer sufficient protection to victims of SGBV or rape victims who live alongside the perpetrators in the same community and whose fear of further retaliation might prohibit reporting of cases or the pursue of justice. In Yei, for instance, a perpetrator of rape continues to threaten the victims with death with impunity. This has left victims helpless and traumatized. In some instances, SGBV victims are even jailed by either their relatives or husbands for defying early and forced marriages. In the Mobile Court trial in Terekeka county, we found examples of women victims detained for one or two years without trial; or tried and charged by chiefs who are biased about rights of women and girls.
For the women of South Sudan, Justice is Peace. Without justice, women shall continue to suffer violence at the hands of armed men with impunity. The longstanding delay in the establishment of transitional justice mechanisms and implementation of Chapter V of the Revitalized Peace Agreement is only taking away hopes for the many victims who yearn for peace. Meanwhile, the delay and hampering of a genuine reconciliation process allow for localized revenge and inter-communal violence to spread. Participants during a perception survey carried out by the South Sudan Law Society stated that for peace to prevail, justice must be achieved, impunity must end, and the cycle of violence must be broken as a legitimate citizens’ demand. Similarly, during a peaceful women’s match in Juba, they chanted demands for peace through security and justice. In Wau, during a community dialogue on peace by a CSO, a female participant stated that ‘as an SGBV victim, I can only feel safe when perpetrators are held to account’. Another male participant suggested that ‘forgiveness is possible after justice is done … how can one forgive before acknowledging the wrong that befell them? You need justice first and reconciliation later.’
Following the rape of an 8-year-old in Juba, women’s groups protested on the streets carrying placards and postures with words such as ‘Covid Walk against Rape’, ‘End Rape Culture in South Sudan’, ‘Nurture Peace’, ‘Say no to Rape’, and ‘Justice for Her’. Women presented a petition to the Ministry of Gender, Child and Social Welfare and the Ministry of Defence calling for justice for the many other women and girls who have not yet received justice. Women and CSOs also petitioned the Chief of Staff of the South Sudan People’s Defence Forces (SSPDF) demanding the perpetrators be brought to trial.
It is therefore important that key justice providers start taking the issue of sexual violence against women seriously and perpetrators be held to account and punished. The lack of justice for the SGBV victims is not only denying them justice but is contributing to the building of a decaying society without morals where women and girls are viewed a sexual tools and objects to be exploited for political advantage. It is high time the government declared sexual violence a national threat to sustainable peace as no justice for women and girls means that no peace can be achieved in South Sudan as a nation. Women are important stakeholders in building a prosperous nation and violating their rights and dignity is only promoting more violence in society. No justice for women is no peace in South Sudan.
The Government of South Sudan, the AU and the UN Security Council should think of justice options for women and victims of SGBV beyond the 2018 peace agreement by reviewing domestic legislation and strengthening the institution of the judiciary at the local level so that women at the grassroots can access justice.