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South Sudan: Rape Survivors Left Without help

Published by the UNHR Office of the High Commissioner on September 22, 2022

Women wait at a food distribution site in a United Nations camp outside Juba, South Sudan, similar to the cite where the Bentiu attacks occurred. (Kassie Bracken/The New York Times)

NEW YORK (22 September 2022) --The war in Ukraine has drastically cut funding for emergency medical and psychosocial care for victims of sexual violence in South Sudan, said the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan after recent missions to Western Equatoria and Unity States.

“It is difficult to comprehend that we are now seeing women in South Sudan who have been gang raped in the conflict up to five times in the last nine years. Just imagine what it means to be raped by multiple armed men, pick yourself up for the sake of your children and then for it to happen again and again and again,” said Yasmin Sooka, Chairperson of the Commission. “These women are asking us when it will stop – 2013, 2016, 2018, 2021 and now in 2022 – they say they keep telling their stories and nothing changes.”

During a visit completed this week to Western Equatoria, members of the Commission’s Secretariat were told that survivors were like zombies, physically and emotionally dead, after experiencing so many brutalizing rapes since 2013. The most recent case the Commission documented occurred last month, but a very substantial number of victims are believed never to report the incidents, especially if they live surrounded by the perpetrators. The youngest victim was 7 years old, who was left for dead after being abducted from her home by two men who then raped her.

Accessing medical and trauma care is increasingly difficult for victims as services vanish. In Unity State, the Commission saw toddlers playing with used syringes scattered on the ground around a destroyed medical clinic, while in other places, learned that health workers have fled their posts in fear. Non-governmental organizations are left to fill the gap but they report their funding has been massively cut even though there’s an upsurge in demand, especially for psychosocial services, and for awareness outreach about kits that if used in time can prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. In several interior villages where the violence is occurring, there is simply no service at all with the result that women are not bothering to report the repeated violations.

“It’s not that there is a lot of sexual violence in South Sudan. It’s that for half the population – women and girls – sexual violence is how they primarily experience the conflict. And it’s not that sexual violence ebbs and flows – it’s going on all the time, largely unseen. It’s only that we cannot document it consistently throughout the country and that the international community’s attention is elsewhere,” said fellow Commissioner, Barney Afako.

In Unity State and rural parts of Western Equatoria, there is no formal court to deal with serious crimes like murder and rape; only customary courts. While in some places, women told the Commission when they reported crimes by the military to the police, the cases were routinely handed them over to the military rather than being investigated by police.

“We talk a lot about impunity in South Sudan but for victims there is often no pretense of a judicial recourse. Women raped by armed forces while collecting firewood are threatened with death if they report it. And often the police are too ill-equipped to do their job – they cannot arrest a soldier who is better armed and protected,” said Commissioner Andrew Clapham.

The Commission saw very young girls with babies around military bases, and heard multiple accounts of soldiers from both government and opposition forces abducting women. In other instances, displaced families left camps because of hunger and went home to cultivate crops or collect firewood, only to be attacked.

The Commissioners are participating in meetings coinciding with the UN General Assembly, and are speaking at an event on 22 September hosted by the Global Survivors Fund, headed by Dr Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad, Nobel Peace Prize laureates 2018.

Background The UN Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan is an independent body mandated by the UN Human Rights Council. It was first established in March 2016, and its mandate has since been renewed each year. The Commission’s latest report , entitled "Conflict-related sexual violence against women and girls in South Sudan," was published as a Conference Room Paper at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on 21 March 2022.

For more information about the UN Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan, see its webpage, and follow @UN_HRC and @UNCHRSS on Twitter

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