Year-round activism against gender-based violence needed to achieve ultimate goal of free and safe movement for all
“Join hands, stand against rape” is the South Sudanese national theme for this year’s campaign of 16 days of activism against gender-based violence. Crude evidence suggests that short-term measures to enable women to stay close to home are necessary to keep them out of harm’s way.
“I’m safe because I don’t move very far to collect firewood because of the technology [fuel-efficient stoves] given to me by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, but for other women in Yei the place is risky. Sometimes they are raped by unknown gunmen [when they are fetching kindling to cook or sell],” says 39-year-old Dudu Emelia Kenyi, adding that the frequency of such heinous incidents “depends on how often the women go to collect” wooden fuel.
Deeply and culturally ingrained impunity, it seems, is a major factor contributing to this frightening reality. At the Juba launch of the campaign against gender-based violence, this was highlighted by both the Police Commissioner and David Shearer, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan.
“Stand up against rape is about turning decades of inaction into a tangible, global sisterhood that is getting stronger and telling perpetrators that their time is up,” affirmed Police Commissioner Unaisi Lutu Vuniwaqa.
And while this won’t happen overnight, there are glimmers of hope, not least in the shape of the mobile courts with which the peacekeeping mission has helped the South Sudanese judiciary tour parts of the country. In Bentiu, Malakal and Rumbek, judicial officers have tried cases of sexual violence and other serious crimes, with more towns scheduled to benefit from the same vital services.
“This [the mobile courts] gives people an opportunity to see justice being done,” David Shearer said. “There is an appetite for justice, and the repercussions [in the community when someone is held accountable] are huge, because suddenly impunity is no longer the norm,” he added.
For Achol Atem Nyinguut, a 45-year-old woman displaced from home village Maar to Bor, this longed-for and much-needed paradigm shift will come too late. She has had nine children, but only six of them are with her. Two have died, and in 2007 a third child was kidnapped – while Achol herself was being robbed and raped by some of the other armed criminals.
She has not seen her child since, she never reported the horrific incident, the perpetrators were not caught, and she never received any kind of medical, psychosocial or financial support. Why?
“In the villages there are no proper police units or stations where you can go and report crimes. The only thing people can do is cry. That’s what I did. I cried, and because there were no solutions, I ended up keeping quiet and did not mention it to anyone,” she says with a distinct and ominous lack of outrage.
With the assistance of the Food and Agriculture Organization, Achol has moved on and makes a living from selling fresh and smoked fish at the Bor market. She is, however, still recovering, psychologically and physically, from the double trauma cruelly inflicted on her. She is still fearful, and while the support available to survivors has become more commonplace she is under no illusion that the security situation of women, especially in rural areas, has improved in any truly meaningful way.
“Many of them will be raped,” she says matter-of-factly about her fellow women in the villages, traditionally obliged to collecting grass and other construction materials. She adds that the perpetrators are “never” caught.
Achol is keen to point out that sexual violence is not the only kind of abuse suffered by women.
“Beatings are very common. It is considered very normal,” she laments, commenting that few South Sudanese women are likely to escape such physical assaults for any prolonged period of time.
The threat of being sexually violated by seemingly omnipresent “unknown gunmen” does, however, loom larger the further away females stray from their non-sanctuary lairs.
To gender-conscious citizens of countries where the fight for women’s rights has been on the agenda for one or more centuries, making it easier for women to stay at home may seem like reversing into the future. In a nation where gender-based violence has become normalized, however, short-term mitigating measures offered by the Food and Agriculture Organization and others, like drilling bore holes and offering cooking and firewood-collecting women fuel-efficient stoves, are sadly necessary.
Apart from keeping women safer, more accessible clean water and cooking fuel also free up valuable time for these hardworking individuals, allowing them to engage in other income-generating activities and thus, in the long term, become less dependent on men.
“Through the agricultural value chain, one of the most important impacts we are having is to ensure that women are empowered economically. Once you do that, they can stand for themselves and determine their own destiny,” says Felix Dzuvurumi, acting Representative of the Food and Agriculture Organization in South Sudan.
To minimize incidents of gender-based violence, both Dudu and Achol stress the need for “total peace” to return to their country, although they note that abuse of women was commonplace before the outbreak of conflict in 2013 as well.
It does seem that the peace deal signed last year has dramatically reduced not only politically motivated violence but conflict-related abuses as well. While last year saw 238 cases of conflict-related sexual violence being reported, involving 1,291 survivors, eleven months into 2019 the corresponding numbers are 79 incidents encompassing 195 surviving girls and women.
What is reported may, as Mr. Shearer fears, be the “tip of the iceberg”, but at least that “tip” has become noticeably smaller.
Achol Atem Nyinguut, enjoying a rare opportunity to speak freely about the challenges facing her South Sudanese sisters “because culturally, women are not supposed to talk about these things”, has strong advice for both women and men on how to tackle the problem.
“Don’t rely or depend on men. You should work for your own good, so that you can enjoy your freedom. When you work, you have less time to be vulnerable to men. You will be doing your own things and you will be independent,” the single mother of six surviving children says.
As for the country’s men, she believes many of them are in the wrong place, doing the wrong thing.
“Most of them have migrated and are now living in towns [because of insecurity]. They have no jobs and they are only playing games and not providing for their children. Please go back to the villages and cultivate so there will be food in abundance.”
Background information on the campaign:
The 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence is an annual international mobilization that kicks off on 25 November, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, and runs until 10 December, Human Rights Day. It was started by activists at the inaugural Women’s Global Leadership Institute in 1991 and continues to be coordinated each year by the Center for Women’s Global Leadership. It is used as an organizing strategy by individuals and organizations around the world to call for the prevention and elimination of violence against women and girls. Since its inception, more than 6,000 organizations in 187 countries have participated in campaign activities.
In support of this civil society initiative, under the leadership of the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, the United Nations Secretary-General’s UNiTE by 2030 to End Violence against Women campaign (UNiTE campaign) calls for global actions to increase awareness, galvanize advocacy efforts, and share knowledge and innovations.