South Sudan’s rape crisis is shockingly unremarkable

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According to new figures from the United Nations, over 1,100 people have suffered sexual violence in South Sudan this year, the highest figure since 2015. Pramila Patten, the UN’s senior-most expert, says rape and abuse is being used by both government troops and rebel militia to “degrade, shame and humiliate” entire communities in the country’s ongoing civil war. Her comments are backed up by reports of various high-profile atrocities across South Sudan, notably a 10-day spree of attacks in November, which saw 125 women and girls beaten, whipped and sexually assaulted in the northern town of Bentiu.

Yet perhaps the most shocking thing about these reports is that they’re really not that shocking. All too often, war provides the pretext for appalling acts of sexual violence, not just in South Sudan and its conflict-ridden neighbours, but around the world. These countries typically share a particular set of risk factors, which both facilitate such violence and force the victims, rather than the perpetrators, to bear its stigma for the rest of their lives.

The primary risk factor is a chaotic melange of competing tribal and ethnic groups, which creates a culture of vengeance in which each community wants to humiliate the others, by any means necessary. Then there is the refusal of national governments to recognize sexual violence – often because their own troops are perpetrating it. Refugee crises, combined with concomitant famine and disease, overwhelm the aid groups and prevent them from shielding vulnerable people. Finally, when the attack has happened, anachronistic value systems stop the survivors from speaking out.

South Sudan serves as an unfortunate exemplar of this mephitic mixture. The country’s 60 ethnic groups are represented by a litany of factions in a five-year civil war which has normalized violence and detonated the rule of law. The conflict has left more than one in three people displaced, a crisis which has swamped the aid stations and forced many women to undertake dangerous journeys in search of supplies. If these women are ambushed, as they were in Bentiu – where victims were picked off as they went to fetch emergency supplies – South Sudan’s stultifying patriarchy, typified by the custom of families marrying off their girls in exchange for cattle, means they face further violence if they tell anyone.

So, the ceaseless sexual assaults continue unchecked, even when atrocities like Bentiu (or the auctioning of a girl’s virginity via Facebook) come to light. The authorities’ attitude was typified by the ‘minister of information’ for Northern Liech, the state which comprises Bentiu, who responded to November’s reports by saying they were simply “not true” and claiming that “women’s rights top our list” of priorities.

Familiar story

For women in neighbouring Congo, a country once labelled the rape capital of the world by the UN, such empty pledges will be all-too-familiar. The country’s government has announced ambitious action plans to curb sexual violence, yet the problem remains unsolved. In a single province, the southerly Kasai, 2,600 people suffered sexual violence in the space of just 16 months leading up to September 2018.

Again, the factors are familiar. Congo has been locked in conflict for 20 years, and the country’s slide into de factodictatorship under Joseph Kabila has brought a fresh spike in violence.In addition to dealing with 4.5 milliondisplaced people, relief workers are facing a fresh outbreak of polio and the second-biggest Ebola epidemic in history (Congo has now suffered 10 Ebola outbreaks since 1976, when the disease was named for one of its rivers). Even if the Congolese government had the resources to address the rape crisis, it lacks the will to do so; international observers suggest the government’s own troops have waged a campaign of rape against local woman to punish and subdue rebellious communities. Global indifference to the conflict – several aid agencies have described Congo as the world’s most neglected crisis – means no one has called the government to account.

At least, for the Congolese, long-delayed recent elections promise a more peaceful future. But for those living in the third member of middle Africa’s war-torn triangle, the situation is even bleaker. The five-year conflict in Central African Republic shows no sign of abating, and some aid officials even predict an escalation to full-scale war. Sexual violence is inflicted upon both sexes, as evinced by reports that rebels, who control 80% of the country, have raped and mutilated scores of men and boys. Far from stemming this tide, it is alleged that UN troops are actually contributing themselves, taking advantage of the chaos to inflict their own assaults at checkpoints and aid stations. In such an environment, it’s no surprise that many survivors are denied basic healthcare, let alone justice.

Decades of agony

Indeed, history suggests that any semblance of redress will be a long time coming. Fifty years on the Vietnam war, campaigners are still demanding recognition of the women raped by South Korean troops during the conflict. Far from being treated as the victims they were, these women were slut-shamed and even thrown in jail during the post-bellum period. The children fathered by their attackers were labelled Lai Dai Han, or ‘mixed blood’, bullied by both their peers and the victorious Communist soldiers. Despite the protests, the South Korean government has yet to even acknowledge the crimes its troops committed, let alone apologize.

At least the international coverage around Bentiu has moved the needle somewhat, raising the hope that future victims, and their children, won’t have to wait so long. But as Patten has saidabout the atrocity, global outrage is not enough. The international community must put pressure on war-torn countries such as South Sudan to end the stigma around war rape and start punishing the perpetrators, no matter whose side they’re on. After years of deadly silence, it’s time to start treating sexual assault in conflict as what it really is: a war crime.