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The Burden of Women in South Sudan

By Ayo Awokoya

The establishment of peace talks in South Sudan signifies the willingness of South Sudan government and armed opposition to cease the escalation of violence in the civil war, but in the midst of the peace negotiations there was a disturbing omission: only three out of 10 delegates were women. In the face of a conflict that uses sexual violence as a means to subjugate, humiliate, and murder women and girls, this proves to be a grave problem for ensuring long-term peace for South Sudanese women.

Acts of rape have long been accepted as an inevitable part of warfare, but recently this notion has begun to change. Sexual violence is utilized as a tool of war and is a measure used with the intention to cripple and destroy ethnic groups and communities. The level of devastation wrought upon the victims, their families, and their communities is blatant and irrefutable. While this is prominent in many parts of the world, the use of sexual violence as weapon of war is especially perverse in South Sudan.

In the wake of South Sudan’s descent into civil violence and anarchy, the level of sexual violence against South Sudanese women is particularly belligerent. At the core of these acts is the intention to target the heart of the community’s societal makeup: the woman. Through their gendered roles, the women of South Sudan they are responsible for the stability of the filial household. They are the providers, the water gathers, and the child-bearers; in essence, women represent the vitality of the community.

When a woman becomes a victim of rape, she is immediately ostracized from the community. She is rejected and abandoned by her family. Sexual violence is an effective strategy of war exactly because of its ability to dismantle the familial ties that hold communities together. It also performs the act of ethnic cleansing through the merging of tribal bloodlines.

If the victim falls pregnant the unborn child is often perceived as a corruption of the tribe’s bloodline and when these acts are performed on a large scale the devastation is evident. It is also because of the importance of the role South Sudanese women play within society that they become victims of sexual violence. Their torture at the hands of their violators becomes a tormenting, ever-consuming symbol of a defeated and broken community.

In order to rectify the vulnerability South Sudanese women and girls experience, greater female representation is needed in peace talks and negotiations. The incorporation of South Sudanese women will allow for the creation of policies that would help prevent and protect individuals who are increasingly vulnerable to acts of sexual violence. There is a need for women to be involved at all stages of the peace process. South Sudanese women and girls play a crucial role in facilitating the basic necessities of their respective communities; they build and maintain the societal structures within a community.

Through offering their homes as a center for rehabilitation for soldiers, their willingness to establish educational facilities, and their ambition to be a part of the workforce that revitalize the economy; women presence in the peace talks are necessary. Their presence, skills, and various perspectives are essential in the state-building projects South Sudan will undergo after the violence has ceased.

These women should represent the several ethnic tribal communities that exist within South Sudan. The Nuer and Dinka compose of the majority of South Sudan’s population, but the existence of other ethnic groups cannot be ignored—the talks should create a space in which the tribulations and struggles of these women are also acknowledged. In addition, female participation in these talks would bring about a shift in attitudes. Roles that were previously assigned based on patriarchal standards and gender norms and practices would be challenged when women address serious political and economic issues.

Women become strong actors when they can decide the kinds of conditions they wish to live in, and this in effect alters society’s perspective on the type of action a woman is able to take. Engaging women in peace talks humanizes them as individuals and undermines local attitudes that recognize women as property. The perpetuation of patriarchal norms has restricted the women of South Sudan to a state of helplessness and dependency, which in effect makes them vulnerable to acts of sexual violence. These women are endangered because of how they are perceived in the eyes of the community, and greater female participation in political processes will help change that perception.

There is also a culture of impunity that allows and accommodates for the emergence and perpetuation of sexual violence in the South Sudan conflict, though this culture exists not only in South Sudan but also throughout the Africa continent. It is recognized by the United Nations that mass acts of rape and sexual violence in conflict is a crime against humanity. Leaders from the South Sudanese government and rebel opposition need to be held accountable for the deliberate use of sexual violence against civilians.

The judiciary in South Sudan is institutionally weak and corrupt; alone it cannot adequately persecute the individuals responsible. Therefore a multilateral collaboration between South Sudan and institutions such as the ICC, the U.N. and the African Union needs to take place to set up an impartial court that can investigate the atrocities committed by all fighting forces. If these actors fail to take full action, this culture of impunity will continue to perpetuate.

Through the victim’s perspective we can identify the social and economic conditions that make women susceptible to acts of sexual violence. The open dialogue encourages and reinforces the idea that sexual violence used as a tool in combat is not simply a gender issue, but rather a security issue that undermines the human agency of South Sudanese women and girls. The effects of sexual violence are not only limited to the destabilization of the community.

The spread of HIV is often intentional, used as a biological weapon to inflict a slow death upon the victims as they, with limited access to medical treatment, succumb to the effects of the virus. In conjunction with the threat of HIV, many victims die as a result of the injuries they received during the attack. There have been cases where victims have died from genital mutilation, penetration through the use of foreign objects and from the brutality of the assault. As a security threat, the seriousness of sexual violence in warfare cannot be understated, it is a tool that can be used as way to carry out genocide.

The top tiers of the South Sudanese government and the opposition need to acknowledge that female integration into the peace process is necessary to rebuild South Sudan as a functional society that is able and willing to address the issues that threaten the security of its citizens. Sexual violence as a weapon of war is such a security issue. It is only through the testimonies brought forward by the women of South Sudan that their suffering can be validated. Justice can only be achieved through a representative political body that seeks to rectify the structural weaknesses that allow women and girls to be vulnerable to malicious acts of sexual violence.

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Ayo Awokoya is British born of Nigerian origin and currently pursuing a master's in international relations at the University of Nottingham.

[Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]

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