On Tuesday, November 15th it was reported that 13 year old girl who left the Wau United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) Protection of Civilian (PoC) site with her mother in search of firewood was later found raped and dead right outside of the UNMISS base. It is apparent that this is just one of many similar incidents that have occurred around the Wau PoC. While UNMISS has a mandate for civilian protection, they are still a significant number of cases of unaccompanied women who leave the sites in search of firewood and other items. And with the recent withdrawal of Kenyan UN peacekeeping troops following the dismissal of the UNMISS force commander the situation is likely to get worse. The force commander was dismissed after findings showed failure of the peacekeeping force to protect civilians during the July upsurge of violence in Juba.
This serves to place a further strain on an already under-resourced mission that has been hard-pressed to protect civilians from acts, such as sexual violence. Wau, a county on the western bank of the Jur River, forming a greater part of the Western Bahr El Ghazal state, was one of the few safe havens in South Sudan and a beacon of stability. Since 2015 Wau has steadily turned into a frontline characterized by the same kind of targeted violence that has marred areas, such as southern Unity State in the past year. In early 2015, the county struggled with severe armed conflict and polarization along ethnic and political lines which resulted in large numbers fleeing the county in fear for their lives. In July this year the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) finally declared “[s]exual violence…a particular concern” in the previously peaceful region. Despite claims by government officials, Wau and surrounding areas remain especially volatile with continuous reports of murder, rape, gang rape, daytime looting and armed robberies, particularly in and around the towns of Nazareth, Kosti, Gonia, Ngobu, Baggari Jedid, Hai Moutamadia, Jebel El Khair and Hai Khamsin. Alongside this there has been a crackdown on freedom of expression since 2015 which has seen media, civil society actors and religious leaders threatened, tortured and arbitrarily detained.
The displaced have sought and continue to seek shelter at churches, INGO compounds and the UNMISS PoC while making trips in and around Wau town during restricted times of the day. Having said that, staying in the PoCs, which is technically protected and patrolled by UNMISS, is no longer an assured safety net, particularly for women.
Since the outbreak of conflict in South Sudan, UNMISS has had a difficult time dealing with the risk and threats of sexual violence suffered by women and girls. Just as quickly as the conflict started at the end of 2013, reports of sexual violence began to circulate various news and communication outlets. Women leaving the PoCs in search of food, firewood and other items, such as grass-thatched roofing for their tukuls were being raped by armed men just outside the camps, and often right under the noses of the peacekeepers. In most cases these incidences are connected to food security and survival issues as women often rely on the sale of firewood for income generation, which they have to collect from outside of the gates of the UNMISS bases where they face acute protection concerns. Many women have developed their own coping mechanisms to deal with these threats, travelling in groups, or paying elderly since they are less likely to be raped. Much as UNMISS is currently initiating steps to mainstream sexual violence within their strategies; there is still an underlying protection gap that needs to be addressed.
SIHA, therefore, calls on UNMISS to enhance their patrolling around the Wau PoCs and step up their efforts towards protective accompaniment for women who have been forced to engage in risky livelihoods strategies as a result of ongoing insecurity in the area. SIHA also calls upon humanitarian agencies to increase food distributions and support improved food security through livelihood and income generating alternatives.