The forgotten victims of South Sudan
It is surely one of humanity’s greatest shames that in times of war, it is women who are made to bear the deepest scars of conflict – and habitually denied avenues for redress in times of peace. Reports of rampant sexual violence amid South Sudan’s civil war is a script that has been written in conflict zones across the world, stretching back decades. Justice for victims of wartime sexual crimes is long overdue.
In September, United Nations investigators told the UN Human Rights Council that the women and girls of South Sudan can no longer be ignored: amid a conflict that has dragged on for more than half a decade, mounting testimonies of women being treated as the “spoils of the conflict” by soldiers and militias on all sides must be addressed with urgency.
“The Commission…once again heard testimonies of wanton killings and numerous accounts of brutal sexual violence,” reported Yasmin Sooka, Chairperson of the Commission on Human Rights in Sudan. Women community leaders from Yei county spoke of widespread abduction and rape at the hands of government soldiers; of those that conceived and gave birth as a result of their attacks, social stigma has forced victims to abandon their babies.
This is not the first time South Sudan’s wartime rapists have been wearing uniforms. In 2016, UN forces documented the gang rape of more than 217 women at the hands of government forces. None of the perpetrators have yet been held accountable, or the victims compensated.
Making matters worse is President Salva Kiir’s reluctance to fast-track the establishment of a special court to address wartime crimes, leaving perpetrators safe in the knowledge they can continue to commit their crimes “with total impunity”. In the meantime, the trauma that has seethed in the wake of South Sudan’s 2011 declaration of independence remains unaddressed.
To South Sudan’s west, the women and girls of the Lake Chad Basin are being forced to endure a similar ordeal. Made up of northeast Nigeria, Cameroon’s far north, west Chad and south Niger, the Lake Chad Basin has been a site of conflict for close to a decade, leaving some 11 million people dependent on humanitarian assistance to survive. Kidnapping and forced marriages at the hands of armed groups is rife.
Despite an end to regional violence in military terms, women in the Lake Chad Basin continue to suffer from “geographic captivity”. According to the Country Director for International Rescue Committee in Cameroon, Hannah Gibbin, “women and girls face gender-based violence daily, are abducted, sexually exploited and abused, and struggling to survive early and forced marriage and intimate partner violence.” Like the women of South Sudan, they, too, have little hope of legal recourse.
Nor is sexual violence unique to civil conflicts of the 21st century, or to Africa. In modern day Vietnam, the survivors of the 1955 to 1975 Vietnam War tell of their own experiences of sexual violence at the hands of South Korean soldiers, crimes which resulted in the birth of a generation of mixed ancestry Vietnamese-Korean children labelled the “Lai Dai Han”. Due to social stigma, many of the Lai Dai Han live in severe poverty, denied access to social services like healthcare and education. Instead, they have been cast to the margins of society.
Indeed, the institutionalized rape of Vietnamese women remains one of the most looming untold stories of the war, and has never been recognised by the government of South Korea. Of the 800 rape victims that are still alive today, not a single one of these women has seen justice for their ordeal – and a lifetime of trauma and stigma endured since. Devastatingly, it is a story as old as time.
Or so it seems. Across the Indian Ocean, the Yazidi women of Iraq have begun to demand justice for their collective ordeal at the hands of Isis militants beginning in 2014. Nadia Murad, author and sexual violence survivor, has recounted her experience as one of 7,000 Yazidi women and girls abducted from their homes in northern Iraq amid Isis’ 2014 advance. Subject to daily beatings, rape and gang rape at the hands of her captors, Murad has since escaped, and made her way to Germany as a refugee and survivor’s advocate. She is one of thousands of women demanding justice.
“I want to be the last girl in the world with a story like mine,” she writes in her book. “We received sympathy and solidarity all over the world, but now what we really need to concrete action to get justice and allow our community to return to its homeland,” demands Murad.
If the international community is serious about preserving life in times of conflict, there must be life-altering consequences for those that use conflict as an excuse to rape and assault women. Last month’s conviction of a former employee of the Bosnian Serb Interior Ministry of wartime rape is, at the very least, a step in the right direction. One day, the factions of South Sudan will surely lay down their guns, but one fact remains: peace without justice for the country’s women is no peace at all.