Durable Solutions for Ending Sexual and Gender-Based Violence Against Refugee Women: The Case of South Sudan

By Angelina Kaneva

International Women's Initiative Staff Writer  

(Photo Credit)

The war in South Sudan has taken a particularly horrific toll on women and girls with government troops and allied forces regularly using violence against women during attacks on villages and settlements, which often results in their subsequent displacement.

Migration and human mobility have become a highest priority issue on the international agenda, especially in the past year. Yet, debates and media coverage have been predominantly focused on the ongoing surge of refugees pouring into Europe when very little attention has been paid to other regions of the world where tens of thousands of people are being displaced on a daily basis in the hope of escaping the horrors of war and armed conflict.

This ‘emphasis’ on the refugee crisis that the Global North is currently experiencing and the apparent neglect towards the same issue facing the Global South raises the important question as to whether we, as a global society, are responding to the world’s tragedies in an equal manner and are not oftentimes acting on the assumption that certain parts of the world, and the lives in them, matter more than others.

One country reiterating this point is the world’s youngest nation, South Sudan, which is currently in the midst of a refugee crisis but which has been largely overlooked by the international community.

A swiftly sparked ‘man-made crisis’ in 2013, caused by an allegation of staging a coup made by one politician against another, escalated into a full-blown civil war that lead to gross human rights violations perpetrated by government troops and rebel groups, a death toll of thousands of civilians, and 2.6 million people rendered in an urgent need of humanitarian assistance, 1.6 million of whom internally displaced and more than 744,000 fleeing their homes to seek refuge in neighbouring countries.

At the same time, the humanitarian situation has been further exacerbated by the increasing numbers of refugees hosted by South Sudan (265,887 as of June 2015) as a result of similar political landscapes and widespread poverty and impunity on the territories of the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia and Sudan. 

The war’s toll on women and girls has been particularly horrific with government troops and allied forces regularly using violence against women during attacks on villages and settlements, which often results in their subsequent displacement.In the summer of 2015, Human Rights Watch researchers documented 63 incidents of rape, including brutal gang rapes, rapes that took place publicly in front of others, and rapes in which the victims were threatened with murder, which were said to be only a tiny fraction of the total number of the atrocities committed.

Even women who found refuge at UN camps have not always managed to escape the surge in sexual violence with many of them falling victims to it when fetching water or firewood, or going to latrines in poorly-lit areas at night.

As conflicts and  violence never happen in a political vacuum and the drivers of displacement in South Sudan are obviously of political nature, it would follow that emergency action alone cannot lead to any long-term sustainable solutions capable of breaking the cycle of forced migration, and end the widespread conflict-related sexual violence against women.Just like with other refugee crises, the international response in South Sudan has so far primarily consisted of short-term humanitarian aid assistance provided on an ad hoc basis by the main actors in the international forced migration field – the UN Refugee Agency, the World Bank, the Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection Department of the European Commission, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the International Organisation for Migration.

While providing access to shelter, food and other basic services, such as health care, water and sanitation, has been indispensible in ensuring that the basic needs of refugees and internally displaced people in South Sudan are met and that their human dignity is respected, and such actions do save thousands of lives every day, there is a growing awareness that more durable solutions should be sought and a more conflict-preventing perspective should be adopted if the causes of forced migration in the region are to be uprooted.

From the longer term perspective, humanitarian aid alone only addresses the immediate needs of vulnerable groups and often threatens to perpetuate hostility, underdevelopment and poor governance as well as various other detrimental factors that cause refugee flights in the first place. In most politically unstable, poverty-stricken and refugee-plagued countries in the Global South, ‘charity’ frequently means bolstering a dependency on humanitarian resources while simultaneously propping up repressive regimes where governments continue to pour whatever state funds there are into military operations and relieve themselves of any responsibility and pressures to correct injustices.

This is why International Women’s Initiative calls on the government of South Sudan to issue public orders to all armed forces, military intelligence and allied militia to prevent and punish all abuses, including crimes of sexual and gender-based violence. We also urge the UN Security Council to step in and either establish an independent tribunal or refer the crimes committed in South Sudan to the International Criminal Court.

Finally, in view of our mission to eradicate human rights violations against women, we recognise the specific need for all of the other international partners of South Sudan to develop and support outreach programmes for survivors of sexual violence that would allow women and girls to be better informed about available medical and mental health services in order to facilitate their referrals and access to emergency treatment.