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South Sudan: UN report highlights widespread sexual violence against women and girls in conflict, fueled by systemic impunity

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21 March 2022

GENEVA, 21 March 2022 – Today the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan published a 48-page report that describes a hellish existence for women and girls. Widespread rape is being perpetrated by all armed groups across the country, often as part of military tactics for which government and military leaders are responsible, either due to their failure to prevent these acts, or for their failure to punish those involved.

“It is outrageous and completely unacceptable that women’s bodies are systematically used on this scale as the spoils of war,” declared Yasmin Sooka, chair of the UN Commission. “Urgent and demonstrable action by authorities is long overdue, and South Sudanese men must stop regarding the female body as 'territory' to be owned, controlled and exploited.”

The report is based on interviews conducted with victims and witnesses over several years. Survivors detailed staggeringly brutal and prolonged gang rapes perpetrated against them by multiple men, often while their husbands, parents or children have been forced to watch, helpless to intervene. Women of all ages recounted being raped multiple times while other women were also being raped around them. A woman raped by six men said she was even forced to tell her assailants that the rape was good, or they threatened to rape her again. The resultant traumas ensure the complete destruction of the social fabric.

“Anyone reading the details of this horrific report can only begin to imagine what life is like for the survivors. These accounts are unfortunately just the tip of the iceberg. Everyone, inside and outside governments, should be thinking what they can do to prevent further acts of sexual violence and to provide adequate care for the survivors,” said Andrew Clapham, member of the Commission.

South Sudanese women are physically assaulted while being raped at gunpoint, typically held down by men while being abused by others. They are told not to resist in the slightest way, and not to report what happened, or they will be killed. A woman described her friend being raped by a man in the forest who then said he wanted to continue to ‘have fun’ and further raped her with a firewood stick until she bled to death. Teenage girls described being left for dead by their rapists while bleeding heavily. Medical personnel say many survivors have been raped multiple times throughout their lifetime.

The report describes women often bearing children as a result of the rapes, and notes that in many cases survivors have contracted sexually transmitted infections including HIV. Women have been abandoned by husbands and families, and left destitute. Some of those raped while pregnant suffered miscarriages.

Husbands searching for abducted wives and daughters often spend years not knowing their fate. Some learnt they were abducted by men from rival ethnic groups and forced to bear multiple children – one such man was so traumatised he wanted to take his own life.

The Commission found that these attacks were not random opportunistic incidents, but usually involved armed soldiers actively hunting down women and girls. Rape carried out during attacks on villages are systematic and widespread.

The Commission said the failure of political elites to deal with security sector reform, and to provide for the very basic needs of armed forces on all sides, contributes to a permissive environment in which South Sudanese women are regarded as currency. Near-universal impunity for rape and sexual violence makes it highly unlikely that perpetrators will ever be held accountable. Humanitarian aid workers, women defenders, and civil society organizations supporting survivors also often find themselves targeted by armed groups.

 

The Government of South Sudan has the primary obligation to end impunity for serious crimes. The Commission has noted the recent Government initiatives to address sexual violence in conflict, including establishing a special court and holding military justice proceedings. The Commission welcomes these measures, but they remain woefully inadequate given the scale and extent of crimes. The 2018 Revitalized Peace Agreement offers a framework to address the drivers of conflict and sexual violence, if fully adhered to. But key aspects are still yet to be implemented. These include reforming armed forces, strengthening justice systems, utilising national revenues to resource health services, and implementing transitional justice processes.

These horrific crimes in conflict take place in a context of patriarchy and gender inequality. Half of all South Sudanese women are married off while under 18 years of age, and the country has the highest maternal mortality rate globally. Sexual and gender-based violence is also common outside of conflict, affecting women and girls amongst all segments of society.

"It is scandalous that senior officials implicated in violence against women and girls, including cabinet ministers and governors, are not immediately removed from office and held accountable. To address this pervasive violence in conflict and other contexts, those in positions of command and other authority must promptly and publicly adopt a ‘zero- tolerance’ policy towards sexual and gender-based violence.” said Barney Afako, member of the Commission.

The Commission called on the authorities in South Sudan to take the necessary steps to stop sexual violence against women and girls, by addressing impunity and the drivers of conflict and insecurity. The report concludes with recommendations on how to address the situation.

See the report: https://www.ohchr.org/sites/default/files/2022-03/A_HRC_49_CRP_4.pdf

Background on the Commission

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. Last week, on 18 March 2022 the Commission presented its Sixth regular report to the Council on the human rights situation; it is complemented by this additional report on sexual violence in conflict.

The Commission is mandated to investigate the situation of human rights in South Sudan, and to determine and report the facts and circumstances of human rights violations and abuses, including by clarifying responsibility for violations and abuses that are crimes under national and or international law. To assist in addressing impunity in South Sudan, the Commission is also mandated to collect and preserve evidence, and to make this available to transitional justice mechanisms, including the hybrid court for South Sudan that is to be established under Chapter 5 of the Revitalised Peace Agreement of 2018.

See also: Report of the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan, published 18 March 2022, available under “Documentation” at: https://www.ohchr.org/en/hr-bodies/hrc/co-h-south-sudan/index

For media queries, please contact:
JUBA: Sean Bain, sean.bain@un.org
GENEVA: Rolando Gomez, rolando.gomez@un.orgor +41 79 477 4411

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

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