by Aimee Ansari, Country Director, CARE International in South Sudan
In the shower in the Malakal UN Protection of Civilians (PoC) site, as I dodged a swarm of mosquitoes, I realise how deeply angry I am at the situation in South Sudan. I swat at the mosquitoes, taking my anger out on those that bite me in the shower and through my jeans, T-shirt, on top of my head at night. The previous day, I visited Wau Shilluk, a small village an hour’s boat ride from the state capital of Malakal. Since December, the population has doubled with the influx of displaced people seeking some form of safety.
My anger is nothing compared to how the women of Wau Shilluk feel. The women of Wau Shilluk asked me to carry a message to the leaders of the government and opposition in South Sudan: ‘Come to Wau Shilluk and explain yourselves,’ they told me. ‘Explain why the promises of independence three years ago have instead become civil war. Explain why the health clinic isn’t providing adequate services for women such as midwives, antenatal care, nutritional feeding.’ And, most awfully: ‘Explain why soldiers are raping and, if they resist, killing women.’
The women of Wau Shilluk just want their voice to be heard in the peace process; they think that if South Sudan’s leaders meeting at the negotiation table hear them and take the time to sit down and work through their differences, the conflict will end.
The women I met a day earlier in Malakal were just as clear about what they want. They’ve been living in the UN’s PoC site now for many months, and desperately want to leave. And who wouldn’t? The mud, the unsanitary conditions, the lack of privacy and the criminality have become a daily part of their lives. They just want to go home. But they can’t, because it’s too unsafe in town. They want the UN to do more to stop the criminality, to improve living conditions.
I ask the obvious: what would help you to feel like you can return home? They answer by telling me that the war has to stop; that until that happens, they won’t feel safe outside of the PoC site. The women tell me that the targeted killing of people, not for cattle or for wealth or material goods, but because they are their ‘enemies’ has undermined their confidence in the army. They no longer trust anyone with a gun or, indeed, anyone who purports to be a leader.
The women in Wau Shilluk and those in the PoC in Malakal are consistent in their call for genuine leadership in bringing peace and re-establishing law and order. Rachel, a strongly spoken woman who lost her husband in the conflict and recently participated in a CARE-run gender-based violence awareness program, said that peace and law and order are the most important things to her.
‘The leaders have to look into their hearts and ask for forgiveness for the things they’ve done and then make peace with each other and the people,’ Rachel says. ‘It is up to the leaders to make it happen.’ But the tone of her voice tells me that she’s clearly very cynical about it actually happening.
Sadly, many South Sudanese don’t think the conflict will end soon. While the women suffer and push to be heard to stop the craziness of violence against them and their children, their leaders sit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, at a cost of about $500,000 per month, accomplishing very little. Even if they do agree, the myriad of armed groups in the country have to agree, too. The amount of violence, killing and suffering that the people of South Sudan have been through means that reconciliation, necessary to re-establish trust in the leaders, may take years to achieve.
Before this conflict started in December, there was no inspiring and unifying vision of what South Sudan could be. The hope and optimism that came with independence is gone. Instead, there is now fear, mistrust and disillusionment between the people of South Sudan. An amazing opportunity has been squandered. It may take years to re-build a sense of unity.
My right big toe has three mosquito bites and is swollen to the size of a small banana and my left ankle has at least seven bites, which makes it look like I’ve contracted some strange disease. But the women I’ve spoken to are so fired up that I am also now angry. I will take their messages back to the capital, to the governments in the region, to the governments that support South Sudan financially and advocate for and alongside these women. And hopefully, when this civil war is over, I’ll have time to worry about the mosquito bites.
CARE is providing food, water and health support to women and girls affected by the crisis in South Sudan, targeting some of the worst affected in three of South Sudan’s hardest-hit states, Unity, Upper Nile and Jonglei. CARE is identifying women and girls in need of healthcare and other services, and ensuring that they can access them in as safe and dignified a manner as possible.
CARE is also conducting anti-gender-based violence campaigns throughout the country, meeting with groups of people – men, women and youths – in churches, schools and water distribution points to facilitate knowledge sharing and open dialogue about gender-based violence, to reduce the silence on this issue.
CARE’s recent report, The Girl Has No Rights: Gender-based Violence in South Sudan, reveals that more women and girls are engaging in sex in exchange for food or water for their families; parents are marrying their daughters early for a bride price and to reduce the number of mouths to feed; and rape and sexual assault have become a weapon of war.