Prevention and accountability in focus as South Sudan discuss protection of children against sexual violence
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JUBA - “I have the deep and very firm conviction that we are talking about a preventable crime,” said Pramila Patten, the UN’s Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, as she addressed participants at a national conference dedicated to the protection of children in South Sudan against such atrocities.
“Sexual violence is never an accident, it is never collateral damage, and it is not an inevitable byproduct of war,” she added.
And yet, Ms. Patten’s presence at the conference served, in itself, as a stark reminder that sexual violence against South Sudanese children is being anything but sufficiently prevented.
In fact, verified incidents of these heinous crimes increased from four in 2021 to 94 in 2022.
Traumatized survivors of these assaults are unlikely to find solace in positive news brought to those in attendance by Guang Cong, Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General at the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS): the number of other serious violations against South Sudanese children has been observed to decrease.
“I want to acknowledge the progress made by the government in this regard, through the signing of the comprehensive action plan in February 2020 to prevent and end grave violations against children in the context of armed conflict,” Mr. Cong said, adding that UNMISS, other UN entities and partners involved in the verification and release of children affiliated with armed forces “have collectively strengthened” their child protection capacity.
The approximately 120 conference participants, drawn from every state and administrative area of the country and including women, youth and representatives of the Ministry of Gender, Child and Social Welfare, could indeed rejoice in some progress made.
“A piece of good news is that the United Nations Security Council has moved our armed forces to a section of the Secretary-General’s report [on armed groups violating the rights of children] that lists parties or countries that have implemented measures to improve the protection of children,” stressed General Ayuen Alier Jongroor, Chairperson of the National Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration Commission.
He was seconded by Hamida Laseko, Country Representative of the UN Children’s Fund (Unicef), who reported a reduction of girls and boys being recruited by armed forces and groups.
The horrors of sexual violence – “a chronically underreported crime”, according to Ms. Patten – persist, however, and increasing numbers of survivors are more than grim statistics.
Agot Alier Garang, a child representative of Save the Children, narrated what happened to her 16-year-old friend when she undertook her morning walk to the market to sell vegetables to help sustain her family.
“She was attacked on the road. And guess who stopped her? It was six armed officers. She was raped at gunpoint.”
The obvious question as to why incidents of sexual violence targeting girls and boys are so alarmingly frequent has, according to Special Representative Patten, multiple and interrelated answers, beginning with accountability, or, more correctly, the lack thereof.
“The accountability for crimes of sexual violence against children has not been prioritized. A culture of impunity is entrenched, emboldening the perpetrators and perpetuating the vicious cycle of violence,” she observed.
While Ms. Patten acknowledged an increased tendency among armed forces to bring offenders within their ranks to court, she urged the government to do more and climb higher.
“There is a need to investigate and prosecute higher-ranking officers also, and not limit the prosecution to those of lower rank,” she said, affirming that “whatever effort is put into justice and accountability will be of no value if the legislative framework is not adequate.”
Offering the technical support of experts working for her office, the Special Representative remarked that much remains to be done in terms of South Sudan’s legal framework. Affirming that the Ministry of Justice is “receptive” to adopting model legislative provisions on investigation and prosecution of conflict-related sexual violence, she went on to point out some of the current gaps.
“Abduction, sexual slavery, forced impregnation, forced sterilization, trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation are key provisions lacking in the Penal Code.”
While her work to protect children - primarily living in a context of conflict - against sexual violence consists of prevention and response, stressing that the latter must be holistic and tailored to the specific needs of the girl or boy who has survived such a trauma, Ms. Patten is mostly concerned about the prevention aspect.
“The deeper I was digging [into the field of protecting children against sexual violence], the more I realized that there was not enough focus on or funding for prevention,” she said, guessing that such initiatives are less tangible and hence less attractive to donors. “It is also important that the voices of children are heard in the context of peacebuilding efforts. They should be seen as co-creators of solutions.”
One such co-creator present at the national conference was Loyika Christopher, a Unicef child representative.
“We need to educate our parents and caregivers on how to spot signs of abuse and how they can talk to their children about body safety,” he said, hinting that children must be taught how to look out for possible sexual advances made by adults as well.
During her third visit to South Sudan, Ms. Patten also visited and interacted with refugees near Aweil and had several high-level meetings, including with Aya Benjamin Warille, Minister of Gender, Child and Social Welfare, and Ruben Madol Arol, Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs.