Widespread sexual violence against women and girls in areas of conflict in South Sudan, fuelled by systemic impunity, amounts to war crimes, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (OHCHR) has said in a new report.
In the 48-paged report, based on interviews conducted with victims and witnesses over several years, the UN Commission described a “hellish existence” for women and girls persistently raped by armed groups.
The report found that sexual assaults were not random opportunistic incidents for armed groups but involved armed soldiers actively hunting down women and girls.
The perpetrators, usually young men, use sexual violence as some reward or spoils of war, the report revealed.
The country, after gaining independence from Sudan in 2011, has been plunged into a war between government forces and a loose coalition of army defectors and ethnic militias.
In the report, a woman described her friend being raped by a man in the forest who said he wanted to continue to ‘have fun’ and further raped her with a firewood stick until she bled to death. Teenage girls described being left for dead by their rapists while bleeding heavily.
Medical personnel interviewed in the report explained how sexual violence survivors detailed “staggeringly brutal and prolonged gang rapes” perpetrated against them by multiple men, often while their husbands, parents or children have been forced to watch, helpless to intervene.
A woman recounted being raped by six men and was even forced to tell her assailants that the rape had been “good”, threatening to rape her again if she refused.
Some of the women reported also being raped around them.
The goal, the report said, is to inflict maximum disruption of the fabric of communities, including through their constant displacement.
Rape is often used as “part of military tactics for which government and military leaders are responsible, either due to their failure to prevent these acts or for their failure to punish those involved,” the report said.
“It is outrageous and completely unacceptable that women’s bodies are systematically used on this scale as the spoils of war,” Yasmin Sooka, Chair of the UN Commission said, calling for urgent and demonstrable action by authorities.
“South Sudanese men must stop regarding the female body as ‘territory’ to be owned, controlled and exploited.”
Traumatised for life
The report revealed some women often bear children as a result of rape, while others have contracted sexually transmitted infections, including being infected with HIV.
After their ordeals, the women are often abandoned by husbands and families and left destitute and traumatised. Some of those raped while pregnant, have suffered miscarriages, according to the report.
The report also found that husbands whose abducted wives and daughters are often traumatised after spending years without knowing their fate or with some learning they were abducted by men from rival ethnic groups and forced to bear multiple children.
The report cited a case of one such man who was so traumatised that he wanted to take his own life.
Lack of accountability fuelling impunity
The report highlighted how the failure of authorities to deal with security sector reform, and to provide for the very basic needs of armed forces on all sides, continues to contribute to a permissive environment in which “South Sudanese women are regarded as currency.”
Perpetrators have continued their assaults with near-universal impunity, avoiding accountability.
The report said the South Sudanese government must uphold its obligation to end impunity for serious crimes.
It noted that recent government initiatives that aim to address sexual violence in conflict, including establishing a special court and holding military justice proceedings, remain woefully inadequate given the scale and extent of crimes.
The report had indicted the military elites for gross human rights violations, including rape.
‘Acts Amount to War Crimes’
The UN Commission said it had reasonable grounds to believe that “members of the Government of South Sudan have engaged in acts amounting to war crimes.”
Commenting on the development, Barney Afako, a member of the Commission, said, “It is scandalous that senior officials implicated in violence against women and girls, including cabinet ministers and governors, are not immediately removed from office and held accountable.”
To address the pervasive sexual violence, those in positions of command and other authority must promptly and publicly adopt a ‘zero tolerance’ policy towards sexual and gender-based violence, Afako said.
Sexual and gender-based violence is also common outside of conflict, affecting women and girls amongst all segments of society, according to the Commission.
Half of all South Sudanese women are married off before they reach 18, and the country has the highest maternal mortality rate globally.
The Commission urged the authorities to take the necessary steps to stop sexual violence against women and girls by addressing impunity and the drivers of conflict and insecurity.
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