The United Nations has reported an upsurge in gender-based violence in South Sudan, fueled by persistent conflict and the climate crisis. The main forms of gender-based violence in the country include sexual violence, domestic violence and forced marriage. While men and boys are equally affected by gender-based violence, the majority of survivors are women and girls. According to a report by the Global Women’s Institute and the International Rescue Committee, up to 65% of South Sudanese women and girls in conflict zones have experienced physical or sexual violence. Despite efforts to prevent gender-based violence, little progress has been made. Comparing the first quarter of 2022 and 2021, violent incidents have decreased since 2021. However, incidents of conflict-related sexual violence have doubled for the same period. The United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) notes that the source of violence has shifted from official parties to the conflict to civil defense groups and militias. Household members are also more likely to commit acts of violence due to increasing economic stress.
Climate change and displacement play a significant role in increasing gender-based violence. In 2021, South Sudan experienced the worst flooding in decades. Many people have lost their homes and crops, causing financial hardship and internal displacement. More civilians have since moved to camps for displaced populations, increasing the risk of gender-based violence. There are two million displaced people in South Sudan, and more than half of them are women.
Due to financial hardship, women and girls may be forced to choose dangerous ways to earn money to support their families, such as collecting firewood and marrying young. According to UNICEF, half of South Sudanese girls are married before the age of 18. Rising gender-based violence can also limit women’s access to public spaces and health care. In a survey by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), women explained that they avoided public places such as water sources, toilets and markets due to widespread violence. Amid insecurity, survivors may not have access to essential health services after an attack.
South Sudan and outside institutions attempted to address gender-based violence in the 2018 peace accord, but the response was inadequate. The government has recently launched initiatives to address conflict-related sexual violence and create appropriate judicial procedures. UNMISS provides training on gender-based violence prevention and supports mobile courts across the country. However, impunity for the violence persists. More needs to be done to address the root causes of violence and bring about long-term change.
Past efforts have not gone far enough to achieve justice for all and target the underlying gender norms that fuel gender-based violence. The security sector in South Sudan is still weak, which limits the state’s ability to protect citizens. Many senior officials continue to hold their positions after perpetrating gender-based violence, suggesting that the problem is not considered serious. Even when perpetrators are not protected by powerful positions, legal justice is rare. Formal justice structures lack stability and accessibility for many survivors. Without a reliable justice system, survivors may turn to customary courts and traditional leaders for redress, often leading to forced marriage between perpetrators and survivors.
Pervasive impunity for perpetrators also reflects the lingering power of patriarchal and misogynistic norms. When women are not considered equal to men, it is easy for families to sell their daughters to support other poor children. Women and girls may not learn life skills or receive an education that would enable them to use safe forms of earning money. Female survivors may be abandoned by their partners and families after attacks due to a perceived loss of honour. The Human Rights Council argues that during conflict, women’s bodies are seen as territories to be conquered and objectives or spoils of war. The perpetrators do not face the consequences of their actions because women are not considered to have equal protection and rights under the law. Even though the Transitional Constitution requires women to be included in South Sudan’s government, they are still underrepresented and ignored.
South Sudan must first strengthen its security and justice sectors to mitigate gender-based violence. The April 3 agreement can serve as a guideline for consolidating the security sector by unifying the command of South Sudanese forces. The government must be able to better protect all citizens against inter- and intra-community violence. With the support of international institutions, the state should also strengthen its legal system to provide a viable alternative to customary courts. Currently, many survivors feel they have no access to legal justice because the justice system is slow and weak. However, customary courts do not provide sufficient remedies to survivors and may cause secondary harm. Survivors will have more options for justice with a fully functioning legal sector.
South Sudan must end impunity and work to change gender norms to also prevent gender-based violence. Government officials should not be immune to the consequences of perpetuating gender-based violence. They should face the justice system and be removed from office if found guilty. The state must stress that gender-based violence is not acceptable and that the perpetrators will be punished. Institutions should focus on dismantling patriarchal norms by working with adolescents to teach them about gender issues, educating parents about the dangers of forced and early marriage, and continuing to fund programs to teach women and girls life skills. Young girls should be valued and protected instead of being married off for money. Women and girls need safe and secure ways to earn money, especially in the context of the climate crisis and economic upheaval. Changing gender norms is slow and difficult, but if patriarchal norms persist, parties to conflict and communities will continue to see gender-based violence as acceptable.
Outside groups should consult and listen to local women’s groups to ensure they are raising, not neglecting, the voices of South Sudanese women. UNMISS and other organizations should also promote more women’s health and mobile clinics to provide survivors with health care after the attacks. Rape treatment kits save lives and must be administered quickly to prevent sexually transmitted infections and provide emergency contraception. It is also essential to mitigate the risk of gender-based violence in displacement camps. Changes such as better lighting around bathrooms and centrally located water sources, where possible, can reduce violence. As always in humanitarian assistance and the response to gender-based violence, more funding is essential for effective programming.
While current efforts to respond to gender-based violence are worthwhile, South Sudan and UNMISS must address the root causes of violence to create lasting change. Organizations need to include more gender norms education and justice and security reform to prevent violence. As South Sudan struggles to move towards peace and reduce communal violence, gender-based violence cannot be ignored.