CAUGHT BETWEEN COVID-19 AND CONFLICT – WOMEN AND GIRLS CONTINUE TO FACE SEXUAL VIOLENCE IN SOUTH SUDAN
Group of schoolgirls in South Sudan – Photo Credit: SIHA Archives
When the peace agreement was signed with opposition forces in late 2018, many women and girls expressed their joy because the long-awaited peace meant putting an end to the rampant use of rape as a weapon, which many soldiers deem to be a form of payment for their otherwise unpaid services in the army. To date, the implementation of the revitalized peace agreement is pending due to the COVID-19 crisis. The Transitional Government of National Unity has not been able to convene further talks to initiate the peace agreement arrangements. Moreover, the reunification between the opposition army and the government army, as stipulated in the agreement, has been delayed. These delays mean that large groups of men continue to possess their guns, but have not been incorporated into formalized, state-sanctioned military employment. This is a highly dangerous set of conditions, which enables increasing rates of rape at gunpoint by men who have no fear of being held accountable for their crimes.
Under these conditions, which are complicated by food insecurity, resource scarcity, loss of income, and frequent displacement of people from their homes, women and girls are constantly aware that they could be subjected to sexual violence at any moment, and they know their attackers will nearly always enjoy full impunity. This impunity is enabled by South Sudan’s utter lack of a just and functioning court system as well as the lack of policies and laws which specifically provide for the protection of women and girls. Rule of law is largely non-existent in South Sudan, and the majority of cases of sexual violence against women and girls are dealt with using customary law, which inevitably discriminates against women and girls due to the patriarchal traditional beliefs that perpetuate a whole range of harmful practices like forced/early marriage, which is common in most communities in South Sudan. COVID-19 has caused the process of establishing justice systems, as provided for in the peace agreement, to be halted, leaving women and girls’ hopes for access to justice deferred yet again.
The post conflict context, COVID-19 pandemic, and lack of government resources (due to conflict) has disproportionately affected women and girls in South Sudan both by exposing them to violence and by limiting the services that might support them in seeking recovery and justice in an already fragile state. Data from One Stop Centres for survivors of gender-based violence (GBV) across South Sudan report an increase in violence concurrent with the above-described situation, which speaks to the worsening state of women and girls’ rights and security in the country. In the period between March 1st and April 25th of this year, 473 occurrences of GBV were recorded by 10 One Stop Centres. This is a marked increase from the average number of cases (288 cases) in the same length of time throughout the previous year.
- Meaningful and active participation of women in all peace-building and conflict resolution processes is the cornerstone of achieving peace in South Sudan – in order to curb the risk of insecurity and women and girls’ exposure to violence.
- The government of South Sudan must prioritize reform of the legal and justice system in line with regional and international human rights mechanisms and instruments.
- The media through journalists should be engaged to report on and raise visibility on the drivers and trends of sexual violence in conflict settings that has led to women and girls living in precarious conditions.
- Grassroots women’s groups and organizations must be supported in providing services to vulnerable groups of women and girls’, and survivors – especially in the remote parts of South Sudan.
- Civil society must work with the government to strengthen referral pathways by;
- Sensitizing medical and legal service providers as well as law enforcement staff on effectively managing and supporting in cases of survivors without causing further harm
- Enacting laws, policies, and protocols which ensure that perpetrators of all forms of conflict-related sexual violence will be held accountable