By Dr. Mary Ellsberg and Mairi MacRae
In recent weeks, the Trump administration has increased its efforts to broker peace between warring factions in South Sudan. This fall, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley went to South Sudan to press for an end to the violence but had to abruptly end her stay due to the unstable security situation at the displacement camp that she was visiting. This flare up of violence that Ambassador Haley witnessed is all too common for the people of South Sudan, especially for its women and girls.
Since armed conflict reignited in 2013, violence in South Sudan has manifested itself in many horrific ways. Perhaps the most vivid of them is the reported use of rape and sexual violence as weapons of the war. While there has been anecdotal evidence about this type of violence, there has not been any large-scale research to determine the depth of the problem—until now.
A research team funded by UK aid and lead by the International Rescue Committee, George Washington University’s Global Women’s Institute and CARE International UK recently announced the results of the first comprehensive study to understand the prevalence, types and patterns of violence against women and girls (VAWG) who live in areas of conflict in South Sudan.
As one would imagine, the study’s findings were bleak. VAWG is pervasive in these conflict-affected areas, with up to 65 percent of women and girls experiencing physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime—among the highest rates in the entire world. In addition, the research supports the claims of rampant sexual violence. Up to 33 percent of women in these areas experienced sexual assault by a stranger, including police officers or other armed men.
However, sexual assault by a stranger is not the most common form of VAWG in South Sudan. In fact, our research shows that these women and girls are subject to violence throughout their lifetime and are most likely to experience it from a husband or partner. At all the study’s sites, more than half of the women and girls surveyed reported experiencing physical or sexual violence from their partners. In Rumbek, nearly three-quarters reported this type of violence and more than 60 percent of those experienced it within the previous year alone. Due to the normalization of violence and economic insecurity in times of conflict, intimate partner violence is further exacerbated in both its frequency and sheer brutality.
But war does not fully explain VAWG in South Sudan. Even in times of relative calm, harmful discriminatory practices, including polygamy, child and forced marriages and bride price, are pervasive root causes of violence. As one study informant told us, “Women and girls have no voice…Fourteen- and fifteen-year-old girls can be married off to sixty-year-old men. Girls have no choice and mothers have no rights to refuse either.”
To truly realize a peaceful future for South Sudan, the country must address the root causes and drivers of VAWG. Furthermore, the women of South Sudan must fully participate, both in the peace process itself and in civil society at large. With a seat at the table, South Sudan’s women can ensure that reducing VAWG and rebuilding a more gender equitable society are considered in all aspects of peacemaking.
Not least, this research also shows that VAWG should not be addressed only in times of crisis. It requires long-term prevention and empowerment efforts that address deeper long-standing attitudes, behaviors and norms that underpin VAWG, including acceptance of intimate partner violence.
Unfortunately, there are limited services in South Sudan for victims of violence, and most survivors do not seek help after experiencing an assault due to shame, stigma and a culture of silence. In particular, emerging women’s groups in South Sudan need support to devise culturally appropriate strategies that will have the greatest impact in preventing VAWG and creating sustainable change within the country.
Addressing VAWG in South Sudan is not only important in establishing peace there, but could serve as a model for other areas of the world where women and girls are at the center of conflict. Indeed, we will never be able to achieve the United Nation’s Sustainable Development goals until, through research like this, we can define the scale of the problem, challenge our assumptions and develop a multi-pronged international strategy that promotes sustained behavior change and transforms social norms.
Mary Ellsberg is the director of the Global Women’s Institute at George Washington University
Mairi MacRae is the former director of the DFID-funded research consortia ‘What Works to Prevent Violence Against Women and Girls in conflict and humanitarian crises” at the International Rescue Committee