Widespread sexual violence against women and girls in conflict is being fueled by systemic impunity, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan said on Monday.
The Commission’s new report, based on interviews conducted with victims and witnesses over several years, describes a “hellish existence for women and girls”, with widespread rape being perpetrated by all armed groups across the country.
According to the UN Commission, sexual violence has been instrumentalized as a reward and entitlement for youth and men participating in conflict.
The goal is to inflict maximum disruption of the fabric of communities, including through their constant displacement, the report continues.
Rape is often used 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”, the Commission advanced.
Bodies reduced to ‘spoils of war’
“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.
Calling for urgent and demonstrable action by authorities, Ms. Sooka said: “South Sudanese men must stop regarding the female body as ‘territory’ to be owned, controlled and exploited.”
Sexual violence survivors have 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, and a woman raped by six men said she was even forced to tell her assailants that the rape had been “good”, threatening to rape her again if she refused.
Anyone reading the details of this horrific report can only begin to imagine what life is like for the survivors. – Andrew Clapham, member of the Commission
The resultant traumas “ensure the complete destruction of the social fabric”, the UN Commission said.
“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.
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 also report that many survivors have been raped multiple times throughout their lifetime.
Traumatised for life
The report also describes women often bearing children as a result of rape, and notes that in many cases, survivors have contracted sexually transmitted infections including being infected with HIV.
Following rape and pregnancy, women are often abandoned by husbands and families, and left destitute. Some of those raped while pregnant, have suffered miscarriages.
Husbands searching for abducted wives and daughters often spend years not knowing their fate, with some learning they were abducted by men from rival ethnic groups and forced to bear multiple children – one such man was so traumatized, he wanted to take his own life.
The Commission reported that these attacks were not random opportunistic incidents, but usually involved armed soldiers actively hunting down women and girls, with rape carried out during attacks on villages, systematic and widespread.
Accountability versus impunity
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, continues to contribute to a permissive environment in which South Sudanese women are regarded as currency.
With near-universal impunity for rape and sexual violence, perpetrators avoid accountability.
Calling on the Government of South Sudan and its obligation to end impunity for serious crimes, the Commission noted the recent Government initiatives to address sexual violence in conflict, including establishing a special court and holding military justice proceedings.
While welcoming such measures, the Commission also said, “they remain woefully inadequate given the scale and extent of crimes”.
Gender inequality context
“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.
To grasp the full impact of conflict-related sexual violence, it is also necessary to understand the social and cultural context in which sexual violence occurs, under patriarchal systems based on domination and gender discrimination.
Half of all South Sudanese women are married off before they reach 18, and the country has the highest maternal mortality rate in the world.
Sexual and gender-based violence is also common outside of conflict, affecting women and girls amongst all segments of society.
The Commission is calling 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.
Work of 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.
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.