Survivors talk of devastation on Int'l Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict
Updated: Jun 22
Rights for Peace workshop with survivors in South Sudan
19 June marks the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict. It is a day to raise awareness of the need to put an end to conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV), to honour victims and survivors, and pay tribute to those who have devoted their lives to standing up for the eradication of these crimes.
The need to eliminate CRSV is urgent. The impact of CRSV on survivors, their families and wider communities is devastating – with a range of social, psychological, medical and economic impacts which are chronic, debilitating, and traumatic. The lack of necessary support, fear and cultural stigma conspire to prevent many survivors from coming forward to report cases. Significant gaps in prevention, accountability, protection of victims and witnesses, and reparations persist.
South Sudan has seen some of the highest levels of sexual violence in the world. A large-scale research study published in 2016 found that up to 65% of women and girls living in conflict zones in South Sudan experienced physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime.
The UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Pramila Patten, has highlighted that in South Sudan, rape and other forms of sexual violence have been “a consistent, systematic feature of the conflict that has been used as a tactic of war to displaced populations, to disperse and instil fear within particular ethnic groups”. Indeed, survivors have recounted that they have been targeted based on their ethnicity or their perceived political allegiance and affiliation. In the Secretary General’s report on CRSV in 2018, it was noted that in almost all recorded cases, the perpetrators and victims came from rival ethnic groups, with physical violence often accompanied by verbal insults on the basis of victims’ identity and presumed allegiance.
“Survivors of CRSV are left helpless. They have to struggle on their own to get to the hospital, to get support and to follow access to justice routes.”
Rights for Peace spoke with Jackline Nasiwa, founder of the Centre for Inclusive Governance, Peace and Justice (CIGPJ), a women’s rights and human rights organisation working in South Sudan, about the specific challenges that survivors of CRSV face in South Sudan. She cited three main challenges:
Most of the survivors of CRSV in South Sudan are in rural communities, making access problematic due to the presence of armed groups and poor roads. Survivors find it difficult to get to hospitals, communication networks are poor, and there is a lack of information and awareness surrounding CRSV.
Even in Juba, survivors “don’t know where to start”, being led round in circles between hospitals and police stations and left frustrated by the lack of support and stigma.
Witness and victim protection is a major issue preventing survivors from reporting their cases. If a survivor knows the perpetrator and decides to report a case of CRSV, it is likely that either the perpetrator or their relatives will come to intimidate the survivor.
Reparations are often the last implemented and least funded aspect of transitional justice, with survivors of mass human rights violations and atrocities rarely, if ever, receiving meaningful and just redress for the violations they have suffered. When marking the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict, it must be highlighted that survivors of CRSV face unique challenges in attaining reparations.
Rights for Peace and a local partner organisation recently held a two-day trauma healing workshop and focus group discussion with survivors of CRSV in South Sudan on their perceptions and needs regarding reparations, as part of the Global Survivors Fund's multi-country study on this topic.
When asked about the effect of CRSV on their lives, survivors detailed an array of debilitating impacts, including chronic pain and long-term health conditions such as fistula, HIV and hepatitis, as well as the huge social challenges of keeping and bringing up children born of rape. Psychological issues, inability to conceive due to lack of medical treatment, and loss of livelihood due to physical impairment and fear of moving freely were also cited. The impact on the children born of rape is perhaps the most shocking, with stories of infanticide, neglect and acute discrimination by husbands, family members and society into adulthood.
Survivors outlined their views on what would be adequate forms of reparation for the CRSV-related harms suffered. They spoke of wanting to receive medication, support with income generation projects, education for their children, emergency health response systems for new cases but also long-term chronic cases (including with specialists in more remote areas), support for medical check-ups and money for medication prescribed, psychosocial support, self-defence training, special schools or programmes for children born of rape and support for their mothers.
““Society stigmatises us as if we are responsible for our own problem”
One of the main challenges that survivors raised was stigma, highlighting the need for community awareness to not blame the victim. They suggested this could be facilitated through a women friendly space in the community which would raise awareness and visibility on the issue – “a centre for socialisation of victims” – where they could have meetings, share stories, have a counsellor/psychosocial expert to give support, and do traditional handicrafts (including for income generation).
“If we have our own friendly space, then people will listen to our voices. We will come together, our voices will be heard, recorded, we will tell the world that we have overcome it.”
The survivors expressed that the main people in the community who are blaming them are their husbands. They called for an awareness programme for their husbands and other men to understand the problems that CRSV survivors have suffered from and “to understand that this is not something that we wanted”. They highlighted the need to address men’s negative stereotypes and discrimination that leads to victimization of children born of rape, and to discuss solutions together.
To prevent repetition of CRSV in the future, the survivors highlighted disarmament as a key factor. Another positive step, they said, would be the unification of different armed groups under one command, as currently different factions are scattered everywhere without control which makes it difficult to find perpetrators.
“They are scattered everywhere, do crimes, no follow up.”
Now is a pivotal moment for the transitional justice agenda in South Sudan. On 29 January 2021, after years of standstill, the South Sudanese Cabinet formally requested the Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs to take the necessary steps for establishing the Commission for Truth, Reconciliation and Healing, the Hybrid Court for South Sudan and the Compensation and Reparation Authority, in fulfilment of its obligations under the R-ARCSS (the Revitalised Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan).
It is essential that the Transitional Government now enacts the domestic legislation for establishing the three transitional justice mechanisms to move the process forward. Crucially, a survivor-centric approach must be at the forefront of these efforts, with survivors of CRSV empowered and enabled to speak freely and with meaningful government and community responses. Only then can real progress be made towards justice in South Sudan.
 United Nations, ‘Guidance Note of the Secretary General – Reparations for Conflict‐Related Sexual Violence’ (2014), https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Press/GuidanceNoteReparationsJune-2014.pdf.  United Nations, ‘Report of the UN Secretary General on Conflict-Related Sexual Violence, January – December 2020’, https://www.un.org/sexualviolenceinconflict/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/factsheet-12th-annual-report-of-the-sg-on-conflict-related-sexual-violence-crsv/factsheet2020-1.pdf  Devon Cone, ‘Still in Danger: Women and Girls Face Sexual Violence in South Sudan Despite Peace Deal’, Refugees International (2019), https://www.refugeesinternational.org/reports/2019/10/15/still-danger-women-girls-face-sexual-violence-south-sudan-peace-deal.  What Works to Prevent Violence, The Global Women’s Institute, International Rescue Committee, CARE, ‘No Safe Place: A Lifetime of Violence for Con4ict-A6ected Women and Girls in South Sudan – Summary Report 2017’ (2017), https://www.rescue-uk.org/sites/default/files/document/1580/southsudanlgsummaryreportonline.pdf, p. 12.  Africa Renewal, ‘Un Srsg For Sexual Violence In Conflict Condemns Use Of Rape As A Tactic Of War In South Sudan’, https://www.un.org/africarenewal/news/un-srsg-sexual-violence-conflict-condemns-use-rape-tactic-war-south-sudan.  Amnesty International, ‘Do Not Remain Silent: Survivors of Sexual Violence in South Sudan Call for Justice and Reparation’ (2017), https://www.amnesty.org.uk/files/2017-07/Sexual%20Violence%20in%20South%20Sudan.PDF?Ep9qgExj7h4_4L1NDrCGvwqSkclyj_Gw= , p. 9.  United Nations, Report of the Secretary General on Conflict-Related Sexual Violence (2018), https://www.un.org/sexualviolenceinconflict/wp-content/uploads/reports/sg-reports/SG-REPORT-2017-CRSV-SPREAD.pdf.  Jackline Nasiwa, founder of Centre for Inclusive Governance, Peace and Justice (CIGPJ).  CRSV survivor, Rights for Peace workshop.  CRSV survivor, Rights for Peace workshop.  CRSV survivor, Rights for Peace workshop.  UN Human Rights Council, ‘Renewed political commitment to initiate transitional justice in South Sudan must deliver for victims, UN experts note’ (2021), https://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/Pages/NewsDetail.aspx?NewsID=26704&LangID=E; Eye Radio, ‘Cabinet approves establishment of hybrid court’ (2021), https://eyeradio.org/cabinet-approves-establishment-of-hybrid-court/.