by Aimee Ansari, CARE’s Country Director in South Sudan
Sometimes when I give an interview, I have to turn off the part of my brain that analyses what I’m saying. The implications of what I’m telling are too devastating: 64 reported cases of gender-based violence in a protection area just within a week. I’ve experienced different kinds of harassment and violence personally – I’ve been mugged in Paris, stalked in Egypt, and put in very uncomfortable situations that female aid workers sometimes find themselves in. But I can’t fathom 64 cases in an area that women have fled to be ‘protected’.
Many years ago, I worked in Kyrgyzstan. One large donor threatened to stop aid to the country until the government took positive and proactive steps to stop violence against women. I was thrilled. A donor finally taking the problem seriously was music to my ears. And, to some extent, it worked.
Sadly, I doubt that stopping assistance to South Sudan would have the same positive impact it had in Kyrgyzstan. Here, violence against women is not only socially acceptable; women are also being told that raping them is their punishment for supporting one side of the conflict or the other. It’s a psychological tool of the conflict. Stopping assistance won’t help.
It’s hard to know what will work to stop these terrible acts against women’s bodies and souls. Certainly, we NGOs and UN agencies could and should be doing more by speaking openly about the problem, by providing services to women, ensuring that those services are of high quality, widely available and accessible to the most vulnerable. Our recently published report ‘THE GIRL HAS NO RIGHTS’: Gender-Based Violence in South Sudan shows CARE and other NGOs are already doing some of this. We have medical post-rape trauma kits in many of the health facilities we support. And we work with community health workers to provide PEP (Post Exposure Prophylaxis) kits, which includes preventive medicine helping women to avoid an HIV infection.
The UN peacekeeping mission, given its new focus on protection, could also be doing more. I know they are planning to increase their protection activities, but the UN Mission has thus far demonstrated limited capacity to support the peacekeepers to appropriately address violence against women and girls. Simple things like placing adequate lighting around latrines, so that women aren’t raped at night would go a long way. Or doing foot patrols with civilians who are women and who speak the local language would help the peacekeepers to better understand issues and communicate to people how they can help protect them.
But addressing violence in the designated protection areas is, in a way, the easy part.
Last week, I visited a CARE program in a fairly remote, but very (militarily) strategic location. The market has been taken over by soldiers. When they get paid, they get drunk and most shops just close. Our staff told me that a woman had been raped and then killed just behind our compound for reasons that they didn’t understand. The head of the County Administration told me that he knew that rape cases had increased as a result of military build-up, but he didn’t know what he could do about it. He said he didn’t have a lot of control over the military. He said he was happy to get any support we could provide.
In one clinic, I spoke to a woman with a one-month-old baby. The baby already had signs of malaria and malnutrition. The child probably won’t survive. The woman was getting very little nutrition herself – the men had left with the cattle in search of pasture. She was getting very little milk and almost no food. The clinical officer did what he could; and maybe the woman would return for further treatment. But, given the military concentrations in the area, we all doubted she would risk her life again to return. Coming back, she may face the threat of physical violence and harassment from men in uniform. It is sadly unlikely that her small girl will survive the combination of malaria and malnutrition.
The good news is we’re getting better at documenting and analysing the scope of the threats women face in this conflict. But this is only the very tip of the iceberg. At least, rape and assault cases are now being reported to us by the women. Recent CARE research found that only 57 per cent of women tell others about a violation; as a result, no one really knows the true scale of the issues. So, if there were 64 reported cases in that one area, we could expect that 130 women faced some form of violence last week. Understanding the magnitude of these abuses remains a great challenge, but at least we now have some of the necessary documentation – that’s the first step in being able to address the issues and really start helping women to be protected.