This article originally appeared at GlobalPost.
By Marcy Hersh
Sudan is one of the world’s toughest places to live, as anyone who
visits the country will notice immediately. Grinding poverty is
everywhere, and people struggle to survive without roads, water,
electricity, and basic services. Some of the cruelest realities of life
there, however, are less visible to the foreign observer – and as such
are rarely mentioned on the international scene. One of those is
violence against women.
Violence against women– from rape and sexual assault to domestic abuse –
is pervasive in the world’s youngest country. Decades of war between
Juba and Khartoum, and between the South’s various ethnic groups,
continue to leave an imprint on women’s bodies.
Women in South Sudan suffer disproportionately from ongoing insecurity
through abduction, forced marriage, and physical and sexual violence.
Experts say that current and former members of the Sudan People’s
Liberation Army are key perpetrators of ongoing sexual violence and
exploitation, especially in connection with its forced disarmament
campaign earlier this year.
Although these abuses clearly have been exacerbated by years of
conflict, they are in fact based on long-standing patriarchal systems,
which make it even harder to eliminate. This breed of patriarchy
condones violence and prevents South Sudanese women and girls from
realizing even their most basic human rights.
Most forms of violence against women occur at the household level,
within the family unit. Dowry practices, for example, cause husbands to
view their wives as purchased property, preventing women from leaving
abusive marriages. Indeed, domestic violence is so common that it is
understood to be normal by members of both sexes. Women often do not
seek help because they perceive violence as their lot in life. And even
if survivors seek out support, most will not find it.
While stationed in Juba earlier this year with the United Nations, it
was my job to make sure displaced women and girls living in camps were
protected from abuse. When rape and other attacks occurred, we tried to
connect survivors with basic services. This was an immensely challenging
proposition because, quite simply, few such services exist in South
Sudan. When an emergency strikes, there is often no one to help.
Currently, a small number of UN agencies, international non-governmental
organizations, and national groups are trying to respond to violence
against women, but resources are scarce and the challenges are myriad.
There is a shortage of rape kits in South Sudanese hospitals, minimal
access to birth control, and virtually no medication to prevent the
spread of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. There are also
too few doctors trained to perform rape examinations, which are
generally necessary to bring cases to trial.
While there are laws in place criminalizing rape and other forms of
abuse, South Sudanese police officers are often ill equipped to enforce
them. With few resources at their disposal, the police have a very
limited presence outside of state capitals, so women living in villages
often turn to traditional courts or village chiefs to handle cases.
Oftentimes the traditional solution for rape is that the survivor is
forced to marry the perpetrator.
There have been some small victories in the fight to protect the women
of South Sudan. When flights carrying thousands of southerners arrived
from the north in May, a small number of humanitarians were miraculously
able to cull together basic services, ensuring that survivors could
receive healthcare, counseling, and safe recovery spaces. Most women and
girls in South Sudan, displaced and otherwise, are not so lucky.
In a country where the problem of violence against women is so immense
and so deeply engrained, it is tragic that response mechanisms are so
limited. The government of South Sudan has a responsibility to protect
its female citizens, and must do so by prioritizing interventions that
protect women from abuse. The rest of the world must respond too, by
providing enough human and financial resources to maintain basic
services until South Sudan can stand on its own.
The women and girls of South Sudan suffered enormously during their
country’s long fight for independence, but their fight for security in
their own homes continues. Surely, they deserve to find peace at last.