SEXUAL violence in Unity State, South Sudan, has remained “endemic” despite a peace agreement there, the United Nations has reported.
A UN investigation found that at least 175 women and girls — some as young as eight years old — had been raped, or suffered other sexual and physical violence, between September and December 2018. The figure was likely to be much higher, however, a spokesman for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), Rupert Colville, told journalists in Geneva, last Friday.
“Obviously [this is] not the whole picture, but they found 175 women and girls who had been either raped, gang-raped, or sexually assaulted or physically harmed in other ways. And 49 of those girls who were raped were children.”
The joint report by OHCHR and the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) states that, while attacks against women decreased significantly after the peace accord was signed on 12 September, sexual violence remained “endemic” in the northern state of Unity, on the border with Sudan.
Many women had been raped while fetching firewood, food, or water — often more than once — because they lacked any protection, Mr Colville said. One woman had told him: “If we go by the main road we are raped, if we go by the bush, we are raped. I was raped among others in the same area repeatedly on three separate occasions.”
The UN has attributed the surge in sexual violence to the breakdown in the rule of law, the destruction of livelihoods, forced displacement, and food insecurity, after years of civil war. One of the main reasons, however, was the many male fighters in the area, who have yet to be reintegrated into the national army under the terms of the agreement.
The UN report states that most of the attacks had been carried out by youth militia groups, and parts of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army in Opposition (SPLA-IO), as well as the South Sudan People’s Defence Forces (SSPDF).
In a few cases, attacks were carried out by members of the group affiliated with the reinstated Vice-President and peace-deal participant, Riek Machar.
Mr Colville said: “A lot of these young men who are heavily armed are just waiting around. . . This is a very toxic mix, and there are also youth militia which some of these official groups ally with, and you don’t know exactly who they are; they’ve been heavily involved as well.”
Fresh fighting has been reported in other states in South Sudan. The UN refugee agency UNHCR has reported that about 5000 people fled renewed violence in Equatoria state, last week, seeking refuge in villages in the north-east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The clashes, which started last month between the army and a rebel group known as the National Salvation Front, have blocked humanitarian access to affected areas. At least 13 civilians and seven soldiers have been killed.
The conflict in South Sudan has created more than 2.2 million refugees since 2013. Up to 20,000 South Sudanese refugees have reportedly returned to the former Upper Nile State from Ethiopian refugee camps since the peace accord, however, citing poor conditions, security incidents in the camps, and insufficient access to food, land, and income-generating activities.
The agency said that women were at “high risk” of sexual violence and forced marriage to the poor economic and education opportunities in these return areas.