Sexual Violence in South Sudan
It was Tuesday and I just came back from school at about two o’clock. No one was home yet; my mother went to the market as usual. I was starting the fire for the cooking and our neighbour called to me to come to his house. He lived only a few houses from ours. When I went, he told me to come in. I was not sure, but he was known to my family so I went in. Immediately he told me he wants me and he came to me. I was young, maybe 13 years. I did not know what to do, and I was very scared. Then he forced himself on me. I was crying, but he didn’t care, and I kept on crying and crying. When he finished he left me in the room and told me not to go. My father came back home and when my mother told him of what happened to me he got very angry with me and he beat me. Then he told me that I cannot stay in his house anymore and that I have to go back to the man’s house. I just remember begging him. I told him that he is my father, and I was sorry and I wanted to stay at home and be with my mother. But he took me back to that house. (Interview, Poni Elizabeth)
Why is this happening?
South Sudan is a deeply patriarchal society in which women are seen as inferior to men. During the 50 years of war, women’s contribution was to reproduce while men justified with the saying “I should have as many children as I can in case I die in war”. In that aspect, a “woman’s womb became national property”. Continued conflict within the region help to propagate this mentality and culture today. Impoverished women work in rural areas and are reliant on their husbands for shelter and food, leaving them extremely vulnerable for domestic and sexual violence.
Sexual harassment and violence has also been normalized in the society as well. Sexual advances are made towards women in public and domestic violence goes unpunished. Women report being sexually violated by family, neighbors, and members of the community and often times, it is the woman that is punished as a result. The community shuns any mention of topics relating to sexuality and women who have been ousted as sexually assaulted are shamed or outcasted as well.
Outcomes of Sexual Violence
Some men use rape as a means to initiate a marriage. If bride price is too high or does not reciprocate interest, men will rape women in order to use it as leverage in order to make women who are raped are seem undesirable or tainted. Men threaten to go public, so that no one in the community will want to marry her, forcing the woman to marry her rapist.
Women who are raped are deemed undesirable or tainted, and households often try to forget or do not acknowledge that it happened as it is extremely shameful. Husbands and fathers feel like they were not strong enough to protect their wives/daughters, leading to a feeling of guilt, so they do not talk about it, and women do not bring it up as it leads to fear, shame, and loss of community respect by other women.
Within domestic relationships, men have complete say in everyday affairs, finances, education, work, etc. Husbands can control when they have intercourse even if the wife does not agree to it. However, this is not considered rape according to South Sudan’s Penal Code 247(3) and allows for additional physical violence to occur as well due to the power dynamic and women being unable to report anything.
After some months in the asylum seekers’ centre Ajak came to know that her husband was also in the Netherlands, and she moved in with him.
“I had to tell him the truth about being raped, because we Dinka believe that if a married woman has sexual intercourse with another man she has to inform her husband, otherwise he will die after having intercourse with her. I told my husband and we asked an old man to perform a ritual. He boiled water in a calabash on glowing coals and he put two little sticks that were tied together into the water. When the water had boiled, the man sprinkled us with it. My husband told me he believes I wasn’t responsible for the rape, but he didn’t want to have my youngest child in the house. I took her to an uncle. She is living with him. I wanted her with me, but what could I do? I had to obey.”
She tried to avoid having sexual intercourse with her husband, but as his wife she was not allowed to refuse. He started to have sex with her in a violent way and started to beat her. “I don’t know if he was so violent because other men slept with me. He also experienced terrible things in the war. Besides, we had become strangers to each other after living apart for five years.” Living apart from her husband, Ajak had developed survival strategies to cope with her situation. She did not want to adjust to traditional gender roles and responsibilities any more. “It was difficult for me to obey my husband. I often disagree with him, which led to a lot of tension. My husband wanted to continue with the old roles but I didn’t want to be sent back to the kitchen. Maybe he was beating me because of that.”
The domestic violence worsened. Ajak was beaten with chairs and belts and her husband constantly called her names. “But it was even more difficult that he didn’t let me go out. He locked the door. He had no job and he did the shopping.”
Ajak never went to a healthcare worker or a doctor with her problems. She has no idea what they could do for her. Besides, going to seek mental health care is difficult for her; it would undermine her strength and power, because in her vision only “people who are separated from their head”, as Ajak calls them, need mental health care, and she managed not to go mad. Only recently she informed her general practitioner that she had been raped, but she turned down his suggestion that she go for psychological treatment.
Why don’t victims seek treatment?
Therapy is seen as only for those with mental disabilities so even if they do have access to seeing one (in another country as refugees), most victims will never seek psychological treatment.
Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)
What is it?
The surgical cutting and removal of the woman’s genitalia which can include but not limited to the removal of the entire clitoris or labia of a female child
Actions Taken Against It
Legislation – Penal Code Act of 2008 and the Child Act of 2008 criminalize FGM among other types of sexual violence. FGM is prohibited for any reason whether it be as a cultural practice or not and happens in Christian and Muslim communities
Challenges Regarding FGM
Although FGM and female circumcision is criminalized in South Sudan, it is not enough to entirely stop the practice. It is a challenge in enforcing the law despite its existence since FGM is often done underground and in secret.
It is also very challenging to raise awareness and fully engage communities to stop the practice. Alongside that, it is also difficult to measure the accurate number of sexual violence because many cases go unreported due to fear and stigmatization. At the root of it all, it is difficult to manage the amount of sexual violence with the current crisis because perpetrators are taking advantage of the state’s insecurity and limited state authority.
Almost 32,000 women have suffered from gender based violence in the two years after conflict broke out; this includes FGM, child marriage, as well as physical and sexual violence
South Sudan People’s Defence Forces were implicated in participating in 37% of the reported cases. Sexual and gender based violence is prevalent and used as a “weapon of conflict” and “torture” in South Sudan by both government and rebel forces since it carries with it various political and economic undertones
Global organization that promotes self-reliance, education, child protection, health and nutrition in refugee populations around the world. They work to create stable conditions in the countries of origin of the refugees so that they can one day return.
Christian organization that treats malnutrition, creates safe spaces for children, and provides health care, and provides supplies and materials, developing the infrastructure to become self-sustaining
A 501(c)(3) organization nonprofit organization that has been helping South Sudan for years now. They have been providing emergency aid, clean water, food, shelter, and attempting to empower the South Sudanese community through infrastructure such as schools, hospitals, and training programs.
An organization founded in New York but specialized in the global refugee crisis in South Sudan, helps provide access to clean and safe water. Strategically serving in areas of dire need, they improve sanitation practices as well as hygiene.