How South Sudan is Addressing Conflict-Related Sexual Violence
On June 19, 2023, communities around the world recognized International Day for Elimination of Conflict-Related Sexual Violence.
The United Nations marks this day, "in order to raise awareness of the need to put an end to conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV), to honour the victims and survivors of sexual violence around the world and to pay tribute to all those who have courageously devoted their lives to and lost their lives in standing up for the eradication of these crimes."
Adeng Leek, Program Manager for Nonviolent Peaceforce in South Sudan, and Gill Lever, Deputy Head of British Embassy in South Sudan, were interviewed for a radio segment on Radio Miraya.
Interviewer (Irene): We now extend our conversation to some of the key stakeholders who will explain to us how South Sudan is tackling the matter. I'm joined by Gill Lever, the Deputy Head of British Embassy in South Sudan. She's a career diplomat whose previous postings include Romania, India and Japan. Her last role before coming to South Sudan was head of overseas health and welfare for the Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office in London. I'm also joined in the studio by Adeng Leek, Program Manager for Nonviolent Peaceforce in South Sudan. As a human rights advocate, Adeng’s previous positions include that of Executive Director for South Sudan Rumors and Parliament Network, Officer with the African Union Commission, Technical Committee Member for the Establishment of the Commission for Truth, Reconciliation and Healing, Deputy Chairperson of the South Sudan Human Rights Defenders Network, and Chair of the Human Rights Cluster.
As we observe International Day for Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict, this matter remains a reality in South Sudan, why is that so?
Gill Lever: First of all, I wanted to do what we call a Trigger Warning. I want to warn your listeners that some of whom may well have experiences of conflict-related sexual violence that talking about this sensitive topic might actually include some distressing content. So it's important to let people know in advance so they can make decisions about how best to look after themselves.
The reason why this is a very important issue in South Sudan is that we've continued to see high levels of conflict-related sexual violence since independence. It's not that it's a new thing, but it's a thing that's continued and has escalated. Last year, for example, there were 380 cases of conflict-related sexual violence in South Sudan, more than double the previous year. That is largely due to big drivers of conflict that we've seen in Unity State, where we're still waiting for the government to issue a report on what happened there until the extent of the events in Warap. This is a very big issue that affects fundamentally affects women and girls, but also as the UN SRSG said earlier on, affects men and boys as well.
Interviewer: Adeng would you like to jump in?
Adeng: Yeah, the conflict-related sexual violence, we have seen it had been happening every time there is conflict in the communities. It becomes like a source of, or a way of revenging and always [used against] a woman as a tool of revenge. It has actually been continuously happening, but due to the issues of underreporting and also not taking this issue seriously and the policies not being implemented, it has become a culture.
If we don't tackle conflict-related sexual violence properly, we might end up creating very angry communities or [angry] generations and even raising more conflict. It is very important, conflict-related sexual violence, and the elimination is very important for South Sudan, if we want to end up in a peaceful and co-existent society.
Which part of South Sudan has the commonest CRSV in the country?
Adeng: It's very hard to point a finger exactly, but you find Unity State, Upper Nile State, as well as parts of Jonglei State. In South Sudan, the bigger location where there is presence of military, it becomes a common thing every time there is a conflict in that area, you also find that there is [an increase] in conflict-related sexual violence.
What do you think needs to be done to tackle this problem?
Gill Lever: To add to what Adeng said there, just for a moment, so what we see what is happening in South Sudan is, CRSV being used as a weapon of war to break down communities and families. I think it's often a misperception that it's driven by lack of command and control over forces, but actually it is used quite deliberately to reward fighters when pay and food might be absent. It’s important that everyone understands that and that government forces, as well as forces more widely than may not be any sort of structure continue to be significant perpetrators. So it's really important that we see the government of South Sudan take action. We have seen the government take some action which we're grateful for— they've made a number of domestic and international commitments to tackle CRSV, including Preventing Sexual Violence and Conflict, a conference that we held last November. On the joint action plan the government has signed, there are a number of commitments that the government has made across all forces, the SSPDF, the SPLMAIO, and now the necessary unified forces have all made commitments. This speaks to the leaders of South Sudan and what they've committed to is training their service personnel to increase their awareness and some progress was made on that, so that they understand the issues and know how to respond to CRSV and raise awareness in the population.
Accountability is also absolutely essential. We must see accountability for troops and senior leaders, again, who are using CRSV sometimes as a weapon of war and using military courts to hold perpetrators accountable, including at the highest levels and providing justice for survivors. Accountability is so important in stopping perpetrators in their tracks, as well as providing protection and support to victims and witnesses and judicial actors. These are very important things that the UK is involved in supporting, working with Adeng and others across the whole society and indeed with the government as well.
Where does education and empowerment of the public with knowledge of their rights and available resources fit when preventing and responding to CRSV?
Adeng: Yeah, there's different ways of doing that. You can see that most organizations are trying to handle [specifically] the one issue of sexual violence and then we have realized that the big warning is the issue of conflict-related sexual violence. So the women organization, the civil society is trying to support survivors by providing them with services and then also it comes to the issue of the limited services that we have in the country. Even giving the priority to the protection of the survivors, even giving the services, be it the first case and all this, but the follow-up after the victim has gone through this kind of atrocity. And you find that the civil society also is running behind the issue of implementation of policies. Even the passing of policies or the bills, it becomes a concern to the civil society.
Let me give you an example like the anti-GBV bill, like people have been calling for it to be returned, to be reviewed and also to be passed afterwards because punishment needs to also go hand in hand. The penalties need to go hand in hand together with the policies so that we will have the kind of society in which justice is prevailing. Civil society is trying its best and those are my colleagues from the civil society, they are trying their best to bring justice to the survivors. Not to forget, we have different mechanisms in the peace agreement that the civil society is also trying to push that it should be handling the issue of conflict related sexual violence, not to forget our partners, whether the donors or the partners are also supporting to stop these kinds of conflict related sexual violence. We went to London for the conference on the prevention of sexual violence in November 2021 and 2022, and that is how we have realized that a lot of people are facing the same issue, you know, all over the world. This action that the government signed is supposed to be implemented and the civil society should go hand in hand with the government to support this implementation. And this is definitely how the things can work and this is how we will have this society.
How does education and empowerment of the public with knowledge of their rights and available resources fit in when preventing CRSV?
Gill Lever: Well, it is a very important issue, raising awareness so people know what conflict related sexual violence actually is, knowing that they will be protected and have support to raise the issues. And then, supporting victims with bringing their perpetrators to justice and support for their health and welfare is very, very important.
And again, we're working quite closely with Adeng and others on this and have done a number of different activities on preventing sexual violence. In our conference in November last year, we started providing resources and tools to countries to help with exactly this, including something called the Murad Code, which is about how people can give evidence and collect evidence in a safe way that protects the welfare of the individuals who are coming forward. There's a huge amount to do still in this space. but we're very active.
What challenges does the civil society organization face, fulfilling their function as civil society?
Adeng: As a civil society, sometimes you find that you have ideas that you want to put in place to bring forth to eliminate conflict related sexual violence. You put your proposals together, your concept note together, you might even find funding for such a program or project- and then you sometimes find resistance from the community or you’ll find that parties aren’t serious about implementation. But, there are activities that need to be done.
Sometimes, you’ll go to a community, provide awareness and all these things. Then, in some communities, you find that you’re met with mistrust because people think, oh, there were people that have come before you and talked about the same thing. But we are still seeing that the rights are not given back. We are not finding justice on all these things. So, those are the issues- implementing the policies, even implementing the laws, becomes a barrier towards what the civil society is putting on the table or towards what the communities are willing to support in order to eliminate the conflict related to sexual violence.
You find in the communities that when people are perpetrated against, for them to get justice it becomes a problem. The policies, by the way, we have nice policies in place on maybe ending sexual violence, we have the QPV that is coming, and we have some laws that punish the sexual violence. But, you find that even legal institutions sometimes find it difficult to announce the law. I mean, the punishment, the perpetrator, maybe the perpetrator is powerful and it becomes an issue for the community to trust again. So it becomes an issue of mistrust and so on. The other side is the issue of funding, because some fundings are limited to certain activities, but I've seen that there is serious consideration of the conflict-related to sexual violence. Communities, civil society, and the government should sit together and see how they can tackle this issue. The lack of awareness among the actors becomes also an issue. Sometimes you find an actor that isn't aware of conflict-related to sexual violence or what it is. Some people might have ignorance if they are in the military, or in the fight and they use women as a weapon of revenge. Then sexual violence occurs and they are not aware that they (the perpetrator) can be punished. It becomes like a culture when the laws are not implemented. Also when the perpetrator is not punishable, it becomes a culture and it becomes very normal for them to keep perpetrating and also doing the same thing all the time.
What are three key things that civil society wants the people of South Sudan to know about CRSV?
Adeng: The key things is that CRSV is a human rights violation and is a war crime. That's one. Secondly, it is actually a war crime punishable by international law, not only the national law. So if you are perpetrating now and even though everything is happening, there is a record. I have seen International Criminal Court (ICC) call in the conference, and we have even heard how conflict-related sexual violence can be punished. If you look at some of the people that have been going through trials, they never expected [to be held accountable] because they thought that conflict-related sexual violence is a normal thing that can be done, but then they find themselves in the court.
The community also should know that they have a role as well to protect their own people from the conflict-related sexual violence. We have the local government. We have the commissioners. We have the governance- they’re all supposed to protect their people from the conflict-related sexual violence from the perpetrators, especially.
The third thing the community should know is that when conflict-related sexual violence happens, sometimes it can result in children born out of sexual violence. This creates a group of young people that may be wounded, who do not know who their father is. This is a very sensitive topic, but it is a group that is wounded and we will have a country that is wounded and we'll never have peace. I'm saying that with so much emotion because I imagine how those children are going to turn out.
Interviewer (Irene): We share the same sentiments there, Adeng.
How do CRSV rights fit into the ongoing peace agreement implementation, particularly on the transitional justice?
Gill Lever: This is a very important point and we've got lots more work to do on this. The government did hold a transitional justice conference about a month ago. But, there's more to be done on conflict-related sexual violence and we already talked about the action plan, about how that needs to be renewed soon (by the end of this year). It's a very, very important commitment that the government has made, so we can mainstream sexual violence considerations in security arrangements, which is a big feature work for the government at the moment under the peace agreement. We can also do more on external communications and outreach. If we allow national violence to continue, we're going to see the continuation of conflict-related sexual violence.
Bringing peace to the provinces is really important and that speaks to the peace agreement and what it's designed to achieve more widely. I'd like to take the opportunity to reflect also on the words of the Archbishop of Canterbury and also the Pope and the moderator who came in February for the ecumenical visit. As you know, the exhortation to us all, to the government, and to the people of South Sudan, was to “end violence, gender-based violence against women”. We need to recollect on that and take those words very much to heart in South Sudan.
Radio Miraya is a United Nations radio station in South Sudan owned and run by the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS)