Conflict-related violence against women and girls: What we know from South Sudan

by 27th Sep 2018
An internally displaced woman in South Sudan An internally displaced woman in South Sudan

‘Rape against women and girls is common during the crisis. This is done by both soldiers and civilians.’ This quote comes from just one of the many women who have endured sexual violence in South Sudan – and in my role as Gender and Protection Co-ordinator at CARE South Sudan, I see thousands of women like this.

Rape as a weapon of war

South Sudan is the world’s newest country, one of its poorest, and one that has now been at war for nearly five years. A recent study found that up to two thirds of women and girls in South Sudan have experienced physical and/or sexual violence at least once in their lives.

It’s long been known that rates of violence against women and girls are particularly high both during and after periods of conflict. Throughout history, men have used rape as a weapon of war – from the ancient Greeks and Romans to mass rapes by Soviet soldiers.

But a new report co-authored by CARE International has found that conflict-related sexual violence is in fact only a small fraction of the violence experienced by women and girls both during and after conflict.

It highlights that more women are needed in positions of power to better understand the nature of this violence.

How conflict fosters other forms of violence against women and girls

The report Intersections of violence against women and girls with state-building and peace-building draws on experience and lessons learned from Nepal, Sierra Leone and my country, South Sudan.

Throughout the country, common forms of violence against women and girls include domestic violence and early or forced marriage. Of women who have (or had in the past) a husband or partner, 73 per cent have experienced physical or sexual violence at the hands of them.

The legal age of marriage is 18 but this is not necessarily enforced. In fact, almost half of South Sudanese women are married before the age of 18. The law denies that there is such a thing as rape within marriage, and there are no explicit punishments for domestic violence laid out in the penal code.

Both these practices have increased during conflict.

When women and girls are seen as commodities

There are other forms of violence which feed off war. Upon marriage, it is common for men to pay a bride price in the form of cattle or money. But with increased economic insecurity due to conflict, and prices of cattle rising, many families can no longer afford this – and we have seen the rate of abductions of women and girls for marriage increase.

In a country where women and girls are often seen as commodities, this can in turn drive local feuds. And what is a central characteristic of these attacks? Violence against women in rival communities.

Patriarchy, from top to bottom

Yes, the impacts of war – economic insecurity, increased levels of violent crime and weakened rule of law – drive desperation. But this desperation is played out in the way it is because of existing gender imbalances. At its core, violence against women and girls is a product of unequal gender dynamics and patriarchal practices.

These patriarchal practices also run through the very top echelons of power in South Sudan, influencing how, if at all, violence against women and girls will be addressed through policy. And women’s participation in this sphere is already limited.

The justice sector is no better. Almost 90% of court cases are seen in customary rather than formal courts. This kind of law for the most part upholds patriarchal norms and is biased against the survivors who seek justice – for instance, unmarried survivors of rape are often made to marry their perpetrator. Chiefs who are supposed to adjudicate often agree with these norms.

Lack of funding = lack of provision of services

But worsening the dire provision of services to support survivors, is the absolute lack of funding for them – largely due to economic insecurity caused by conflict. Another chicken-and-egg situation: a non-peaceful environment doesn’t just play out that violence on women – it actively prevents those who’ve already suffered from getting the support they need.

In South Sudan, health services supporting survivors of sexual violence do exist. But many women cannot access them for financial reasons, or because they are just too far away. As with things like education, there is a huge gap in health service provision between urban and rural areas. And it is incredibly rare to find female health workers, which puts women off.

Women must be included in state-building and peace-building

Issues like these just aren’t being considered enough. According to our report, during the South Sudan peace process, violence against women and girls has only been addressed on an ad-hoc basis. Women are frequently excluded from the state-building and peace-building process, and when this happens, we lose the opportunity to create new structures that challenge inequalities.

The international community needs to start applying a gendered lens to peace-building. Otherwise, the war might officially be recognised as over – but the war on women lives on.

The study was conducted jointly by the Global Women’s Institute (George Washington University), CARE International UK, and the International Rescue Committee. The study forms part of the What Works to Prevent Violence Against Women and Girls in Conflict and Humanitarian Crises research programme, funded by the UK Government’s Department for International Development, which is building evidence on how to prevent and respond to violence against women and girls in fragile and conflict settings.

Dorcas Acen

Dorcas Acen is a Gender and Protection Adviser at CARE International in South Sudan, where she is responsible for the overall direction of the Gender and Protection programme portfolio. She has worked at CARE International for nearly two years, and has a wealth of experience in gender-based violence protection and prevention with NGOs in both South Sudan and Uganda.