Women and children seek protection in a UN Protection of Civilians site. Women and children seek protection in a UN Protection of Civilians site. Photo credit: IOM/Bannon 2015
A continuum of suffering: violence against women and girls in the South Sudan conflict
by Lydia Stone January 2017

In 2014, the international community commended the government of South Sudan for endorsing the recently established Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, by which it undertook to end the use of rape and sexual violence as a weapon of war. However, within months reports emerged of atrocities against South Sudanese women and girls that the UN Special Representative on sexual violence in armed conflict described as the worst she had ever seen.+‘South Sudan Sexual Violence “Rampant”: Two Year Old Raped: UN’, Reuters, 21 October 2014. In Unity State, civilians spoke of the systematic enslavement of women and girls in rape camps run by government-aligned militia groups,+Hannah McNeish, ‘South Sudan: Women and Girls Raped as “Wages” for Government-allied Fighters’, The Guardian, 28 September 2015. and both the African Union (AU) and Human Rights Watch produced reports documenting rape and gang rape, beatings, sexual assault and forced labour.+Final Report of African Union Commission of Inquiry in South Sudan, October 2014; and ‘“They Burned It All”: Destruction of Villages, Killings, and Sexual Violence in Unity State South Sudan’, Human Rights Watch, July 2015.

New accounts of sexual violence against women and girls in the South Sudan conflict now emerge weekly, detailing widespread horrors that have rarely been seen since the Rwandan genocide. Some female survivors have lost count of the number of times they have been raped, and in certain parts of the country sexual violence perpetrated by armed men has become so commonplace that it is difficult to find a woman or girl who has not witnessed or experienced it first-hand.

The perpetrators of this horrific violence include soldiers on the government payroll, as well as troops from the SPLA In Opposition (SPLA-IO) and aligned and non-aligned militia groups. With the August 2015 peace agreement hanging by a thread and an estimated 3 million people displaced by the conflict, the government’s commitment to ending sexual violence in conflict looks like little more than empty rhetoric, and there is scant hope that survivors of atrocities will receive justice.

An enabling environment for sexual violence

The UN’s Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide has recently warned that ‘genocide is a process. It does not happen overnight’.+Risk of “Outright Ethnic War” and Genocide in South Sudan, UN Envoy Warns’, UN News Centre, 11 November 2016. The same can be said for conflict-related sexual violence. The men committing these atrocities did not appear from nowhere in December 2013: they are the sons of South Sudan and the products of an environment that has gradually and consistently tolerated and normalised violence against the most vulnerable, in particular women and girls. To understand the current violence it is important to understand the environment and social norms that facilitated it.

Violence against women and girls is an accepted practice in many South Sudanese communities. The practice of paying bride price in particular encourages the treatment of women as chattel, and child marriage and intimate partner violence are common. A 2012 study by the Ministry of Gender, Child and Social Welfare found that a majority of both women and men believe that a man is justified in hitting a woman if she goes out without telling him, if she neglects the children or if she argues with him.+Ministry of Gender, Child and Social Welfare, Comprehensive Country Gender Assessment, 2012. In a separate assessment of attitudes and beliefs towards violence against women and girls in South Sudan, the majority of respondents (68% of women and 63% of men) also agreed that ‘there are times when a woman deserves to be beaten’.

The advent of independence in 2011 failed to bring the much-promised fruits of freedom to the ordinary people of South Sudan. While the wealth of the Juba-based elite grew and the ‘big men’ in power treated themselves to expensive cars and multiple wives, the typical South Sudanese citizen saw no change to their living standards. Rising bride prices put marriage beyond the reach of many frustrated young men, providing the dry tinder for the spark of the December 2013 violence.+USIP, Dowry and Division: Youth and State Building in South Sudan, 2011. The horrific violence in 2012 in Jonglei State, in which hundreds of women and girls were raped, mutilated and abducted, was a foreshadowing of the current carnage.+Women and Armed Violence in South Sudan, Sudan Human Security Baseline Assessment (HSBA), Small Arms Survey, April 2012.

Response and responsibility


It is difficult to find an institution in South Sudan that has not issued a ‘strong condemnation’ of the sexual violence in the country and called for it to stop. On 6 December 2016, Paul Malong Awan, the SPLA’s hardline Chief of General Staff, used the national television channel to tell soldiers that there should be no more violence against women.+‘Diplomat Lauds Malong’s Anti-rape Remark’, http://www.eyeradio.org/diplomat-lauds-malongs-anti-rape-remark, 7 December 2016. Malong joins the AU, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and the United Nations in condemning the violence against women and girls, yet no one seems able to provide solutions.

A large part of the problem with tackling sexual violence com-mitted by SPLA soldiers is the lack of command and control in the army. Since 2005, when it made the transition from a rebel opposition group to the official army of what was then Southern Sudan, the SPLA has borne little resemblance to a coherent, united army with a functioning system of command. The Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that ended the 21-year war mandated that all other armed groups be disbanded and integrated into the SPLA, but in reality the SPLA has been little more than a collection of disparate militia groups that happen to be on the same payroll. Over time more and more rebel groups were appeased with the offer of ‘integration’ into the SPLA and salaries. By the time the conflict broke out in December 2013, the SPLA payroll stood at a massive and unaccountable 210,000.+It should be noted that this figure is unlikely to represent 210,000 actual soldiers. The SPLA payroll has always lacked accountability and is based on numbers provided by commanders who are known to inflate their payroll requests in order to provide food, fuel and basic necessities, as well as lining their own pockets and providing payments to families of deceased soldiers.

Within this context, edicts issued by Malong or others within the government have limited impact on soldiers who do not respect the hierarchy within the SPLA. Similarly, although SPLA-IO leader Riek Machar has met with the UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence, Zainab Bangura, and has pledged to combat sexual violence and other abuses,+See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fmYb7rM1sZk; and ‘South Sudan: UN Special Representative Welcomes SPLA-IO Action Plan to Combat Rape in War and Undertakings by Commanders’, Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, 10 November 2015. the control that he wields over his own troops in the field is limited. This lack of control, far from absolving the leaders of these armed groups, highlights their culpability in stoking discontent and hatred without having the leadership to control the violence they have done much to unleash.

In 2014 South Sudan and the United Nations issued a joint communiqué on the prevention of conflict-related sexual violence.+‘Joint Communique of the Republic of South Sudan and the United Nations on the Prevention of Conflict-Related Sexual Violence’, Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, 12 October 2014. The statement committed the government to working with the UN and others to undertake a number of concrete measures, including developing an action plan specific to the SPLA, with a clear order prohibiting sexual violence and ensuring accountability, addressing sexual violence in security sector reform and improving access to justice for survivors of sexual violence. However, since the communiqué was issued the situation has only worsened.

United Nations

The inaction of the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) in response to atrocities against civilians, including sexual violence against women and girls, has provoked dismay and anger. Although the mission may have been lauded for opening its bases to civilians in December 2013, this cannot excuse its lack of action in the years leading up to the crisis, nor the failures since. UN soldiers have failed to respond to civilians being attacked in plain sight, including women raped within yards of UN compounds, as well as attacks within the compounds themselves.

The inertia of UNMISS with regard to its protection of civilians mandate only drew the attention that it had long deserved when a group of international aid workers were attacked and raped inside their Juba compound during the violence of July 2016. The Special Investigation commissioned by the UN was damning of the mission’s record on protection of civilians, including the ‘poor performance by peacekeepers in protecting civilians from sexual violence in the vicinity of the POC [Protection of Civilians] sites’.+ ‘Executive Summary of the Independent Special Investigation into the Violence which Occurred in Juba in 2016 and UNMISS Response’, 1 November 2016. The Special Investigation’s report also noted that, even two months after the July crisis, ‘the Force and Police components continued to display a risk-averse posture unsuited to protecting civilians from sexual violence and other opportunistic attacks’, and that, on the rare occasions that the mission does conduct patrols around the POC sites, ‘its soldiers peer out from the tiny windows of armoured personnel carriers, an approach ill-suited to detecting perpetrators of sexual violence’. Although the report led to the sacking of the UNMISS military commander, the mission’s ‘chaos and ineffective response’ cannot be blamed on one recently appointed individual, and owes much more to the lack of accountability and culture of chronic risk aversion that has permeated the mission since its formation.

Non-governmental organisations

The scale of the crisis has overwhelmed the humanitarian com-munity. While the UN’s POC sites have provided shelter and a degree of protection for some of the displaced population, they are inadequate, and many fail to meet basic standards of protection for women and girls, such as separate toilets and bathing facilities, and the cramped conditions mean that work-shops to support survivors of sexual violence that should take place in discreet locations are often exposed to the wider camp.+Andrew Green, ‘Women in South Sudan: “They Attack Us at Toilets or Where We Collect Water”’, The Guardian, 11 September 2014.

Furthermore, the vast majority of those affected by the conflict are outside the POC sites, often in areas that are difficult, dangerous and expensive to access due to extremely poor infrastructure and lack of roads. When an organisation is awarded funding based on the number of beneficiaries it is able to reach, there is an incentive to provide services to more densely populated communities such as POC sites, where target numbers can be more easily achieved.

Civil society organisations such as the South Sudan Women’s Empowerment Network, Eve Organisation and the Smile Again Africa Development Organisation have provided survivors of sexual violence with dignity kits, psycho-social counselling and referral services, but the challenges they face are tremendous. These organisations themselves admit that they lack the technical expertise and resources to provide the full package of care survivors of sexual violence require, and are calling on the international community for more sustained funding and technical help to bolster the skills of their staff and reach the vast numbers who need assistance. Although international organisations including Nonviolent Peaceforce, Care International and World Vision all have effective response programmes, the scale is small in comparison to the enormity of the problem.

Ways forward

In early 2014 the government approved a National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security. The plan, based on the principles of UN Resolution 1325, was out of date almost as soon as it was published thanks to the advent of the December 2013 crisis. Nevertheless, it represented an important coming together of the international community, the government and civil society groups to mobilise resources in a coherent fashion. Given the radically worsened situation for women and girls in South Sudan over the last three years, it is time for this action plan to be reviewed and reinvigorated.

Donors must work in a coordinated fashion to ensure that national and international humanitarian and development NGOs are receiving sufficient and sustained support to respond to the needs of survivors of sexual violence, including access to health services, justice, livelihood support and psycho-social services. It is essential that the international community continues to engage with the South Sudanese security services, and demands standards that focus on the protection, rather than abuse, of civilians. Finally, and as a matter of urgency, UNMISS must ensure that its protection of civilians mandate is comprehensively understood and followed by all of its forces. The women and girls of South Sudan need a bold and proactive international community that prioritises the protection of the most vulnerable.

Lydia Stone is Senior Manager: Security, Justice and Peace-building, Social Development Direct.