South Sudanese women and UN human rights team come together to eliminate gender-based violence
Many women in South Sudan carry the burden of raising their families alone.
Their husbands are dead, fighting on the frontlines, or they have simply lost each other during the ongoing conflict. These women have seen and suffered so much violence.
“We face a lot of challenges, when you are collecting firewood or cutting charcoal, women are facing the problem of rape,” says one woman who has experienced domestic violence. “In the family also, we see the men now have become very aggressive because of the war, so they do not even defend the rights of the woman.”
Tens of thousands of women have fled to UN Protection of Civilians sites (POCs), seeking sanctuary for themselves and their children. Many collect and sell firewood to support their family - a dangerous occupation in this country.
“In the beginning of the rainy season, we went to collect firewood in the bush. We were attacked by SPLA Dinka men, marked like this, they opened fire on us so we prayed to God and no one was injured and we ran to the POC,” said another woman who has lived in the POC for two years.
Despite the efforts of peacekeepers to protect them, they have no option but to risk their lives to support their family. Some resent the risks they are forced to take because of the war and lack of support.
“Our husbands, they are the ones abusing and fighting outside. They think only about killing, they do not think about the women and the children or care about responsibility. They left for us all the responsibility and burden of taking care of children.”
The UN’s human rights team run workshops for the women in the POC to inform them about their rights and steps they can take to protect themselves and hold abusers to account.
At a training session in Bentiu, one woman, who wants to remain anonymous, told the story of how she ended up married to her husband. He is 70 – 40 years older than her and now has five wives. She was forced by her family to marry him at the age of 14. They have been separated by war and she now lives in the Bentiu POC. She says, despite the physical hardship, life inside the protection site is better than living back home with him in their village where she suffered domestic violence.
“So, those are the problems that occur in the family, the men decide to beat the women. So, at the time when I am in POC now, the beating is no longer there because the man is in the village.”
As well as a safer environment, the protection site also provides an opportunity for women to come together to express their fears about issues like forced and early marriage and domestic violence. They also get practical support to take action against abusers.
“This is the job of human rights. If the rights of women are violated, either by an institution, the traditional court, the police the SPLA, you can report it to us and we can support you with whoever you are facing problems,” said UNMISS human rights officer Benedetta Odorisio, at a training session for women in the POC. “If the problem is in the house with your husband, and you want to bring the case to court, but you say I don’t want to because others say it’s your fault, you can inform human rights and we will come to the court with you.”
The common goal in South Sudan on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women is to empower all women and put an end to the violence against them.
As the Head of the UNMISS Field Office in Bentiu, Hiroko Hirihara puts it: “there are no more silent women here.”