WMC Women Under Siege

Rape is being used as tool of ethnic violence in South Sudan

In what experts are calling the single worst atrocity since fighting broke out in South Sudan last December, hundreds of men, women, and children were killed last month when rebels seized the northern oil town of Bentiu. The rebels denied the allegations, saying it was retreating government troops who perpetrated the murders.

The attacks, which included raids on a hospital, church, mosque, and even a UN World Food Programme compound, resulted in “piles of bodies [lining] the streets where they had been executed…the majority wearing civilian clothes,” according to Toby Lanzer, a top UN aid official in the country.

The site of one of the mid-April attacks in the oil-rich town of Bentiu. (AFP/HO/UNMISS)

Then, in a disturbing development reminiscent of the hate propaganda broadcast in Rwanda during the genocide, fighters took to radio airwaves—the means by which most South Sudanese citizens access news—and broadcast “hate messages” calling on men to rape women. The UN condemned the reports, saying that some commanders aired “hate messages declaring that certain ethnic groups should not stay in Bentiu and even calling on men from one community to commit vengeful sexual violence against women from another community.”

Between this and stories of rape starting to pop up in the news and via NGOs, it would seem that sexualized violence is becoming a central feature in the South Sudan crisis.

Donatella Rovera, a senior crisis response researcher for Amnesty International, told WMC’s Women Under Siege that during a recent visit to South Sudan she met women and girls who had been sexually assaulted and raped—some of them in their own homes. “Others were abducted and taken to be raped elsewhere,” she said. “Those who survived their ordeal also told me about other women who were killed after having been raped.”

This is a conflict that is reaching all levels of society in multiple, terrifying ways. UN figures show that hundreds of civilians were killed in the April violence—and, since the fighting began in recent months, thousands. Soon, UN officials say, a famine could arise if action is not taken. The UN estimates that more than 1 million people have been displaced already. And while there is no total count yet of how many women and men have been victims of sexualized violence, the number appears to be growing.

“We could only reach a small fraction [of people in need] and so it is difficult to know the real scale of such crimes,” Rovera said.

Other NGOs have begun investigating sexualized violence in the conflict, and one says it is definitely on the rise. A report issued on May 19 by the anti-poverty organization CARE International found that sexualized violence in South Sudan was increasing as the violence continued. “The impact of the conflict on women and girls has been horrifying,” CARE South Sudan Country Director Aimee Ansari said in a statement the day of the report’s release. “The things happening here to women and girls are evil. Women tied up, raped and then shot. Women attacked in hospitals and churches where they had fled seeking safety with their families. There is no safe place for a woman today in South Sudan.”

With the attacks in mid-April, experts are deeming the Bentiu killings—possibly the “single worst atrocity” since December—a “game changer.” And when the game changes, the most vulnerable become even more so, and that usually means that attacks on women and children increase.

An ethnic angle

A power struggle erupted in South Sudan in mid-December 2013 between President Salva Kiir and his former deputy president, Riek Machar. Kiir accused Machar of leading a coup against him, which he denied. But, as militia forces of both kept fighting, the chaos descended into ethnic violence. Now, war rages on between two of South Sudan’s ethnic groups: the Dinka, supportive of Kiir, and the Nuer, who fight for Machar.

Hilde Johnson, head of UNMISS, the UN Mission in South Sudan, told the BBC that a report released by UNMISS in May found that “ethnicity has contributed to large-scale violence in the form of mass killings, disappearances, rape and sexual violence of different sorts, abductions, extrajudicial killings.” The report, which broke down reported cases of sexualized violence by state, found that the violence committed during the conflict included “rape, sometimes with an object (guns or bullets), gang-rape, abduction and sexual slavery, and forced abortion.”

The report stated:

All parties to the conflict have committed acts of rape and other forms of sexual violence against women of different ethnic groups. The incidence of sexual violence in Central Equatoria State increased in the days following 15 December. At least 27 incidents were documented, of which 22 incidents were attributed to Government security forces and mainly to the SPLA [Sudan People’s Liberation Army]. These include 14 incidents of rape and gang-rape, one attempted rape and four cases of sexual slavery. In four other incidents, the alleged perpetrators were not identified. An IDP [internally displaced person] also raped a woman outside a POC [Protection of Civilians] site, reportedly on ethnic grounds. The majority of identified survivors are Nuer women, but at least one act of sexual violence perpetrated against a Dinka woman has been confirmed. For example, in the days following 15 December, Nuer women were stopped in a street of Juba by SPLA soldiers and taken to unknown places. They were then assigned to soldiers who repeatedly raped them. In some instances, survivors were subsequently taken as “wives” by the soldiers. On 16 December, three girls under 18 years old were gang-raped by SPLA soldiers when they broke in their house and found them alone.

Other reports from the country on the raging ethnic divide are equally as grim.

Skye Wheeler, the South Sudan researcher for Human Rights Watch, wrote in the Huffington Post recently that the conflict has been “dominated not so much by fierce battles between government and opposition forces as by brutal attacks on civilians, often because of their ethnicity. Starting with round-ups and a massacre of ethnic Nuer in Juba, the conflict has spiraled into a series of revenge and counter-attacks on ethnic Dinka, Nuer, and other communities.”

Wheeler said that witnesses told them of Nuer women who had been gang-raped, abused, and abducted. “Another woman said that soldiers threw stones at the motorbike she was riding, causing it to fall. Then four of them dragged her into a car, drove to another part of town, and raped her,” she wrote.

The reports also feature some particularly brutal stories of gang rape and objects being inserted into women’s vaginas—acts that are often part and parcel of the intense hatred behind ethnic violence.

A May 8 Amnesty International report documents its findings in the country since December 2013. The report was based on interviews with victims, witnesses, civil society organizations, government officials, security forces, and local authorities and cited survivors of sexualized violence. One woman, identified as “Nyawal,” said she was among a group of 18 women who were raped by pro-government soldiers and civilians in the town of Palop at the end of December. “I was three months’ pregnant,” she said, “but because I was raped by so many men, the baby came out. If I had refused those people, they would have killed me. Nine men raped me. They were Dinka.”

Nyawal told Amnesty that the soldiers made her watch as they forced wooden sticks inside the vaginas of seven women who refused to be raped. The soldiers said, “If you do not want [to be raped], we will do this to you. [The other women] were strong, and refused. I wanted to live, so I allowed them to rape me.”

Nyawal said the women died as a result of the attacks.

How rape is used as a tool of war in ethnic conflicts

Ethnic violence is hardly unique to South Sudan and neither is its use of sexualized violence for the purpose of ethnic cleansing.

In Rwanda, rape was used as a means of stripping Tutsi women of their dignity and identity. This was part of a tactic to treat Tutsis as subhuman, as “cockroaches,” which they were called in the hate propaganda. From testimonies gathered after the genocide, it was as if the Hutu raped to say, “You are nothing to us. We will do to you what we want.”

Mutilation was also used as a way to sterilize Tutsi women or take away their uniquely Tutsi features, such as noses or long fingers. Women were raped with sharp sticks or machetes, or tortured with boiling water or acid, as a way to prevent them from having Tutsi children. A briefing paper by the UN in 2006 found that Rwandan women were “taunted by their genocidal rapists, who promised to infect them with HIV.”

In Darfur, too, reports surfaced of ethnic slurs being made during rape. One survivor told researchers with the nonprofit organization Refugees International that a militiaman who raped her said, “I will give you a light-skinned baby to take this land from you.”

Women in ethnic conflicts are raped so that their “inferior” wombs are occupied with “superior” sperm, or they are forced to have abortions or sterilizations (as have men of “inferior” groups) in order to end future reproduction, according to Gloria Steinem, who originated WMC’s Women Under Siege. Rape is a way to literally imprint the face of a victor on the loser, by impregnating a woman and altering the next generation.

But it is the generation suffering right now that is not getting the international attention required to stop what is happening.

On April 25, a woman named Rhoda Misaka, who represented the NGO Working Group on Women, Peace, and Security at a UN Security Council debate on the adoption of a resolution on sexualized violence, said: “I am here today in the Security Council, but I will leave in fear of what will happen next in my country. … Women in UNMISS camps, in IDP camps, in Bohr, which was attacked last week, traumatized and devastated, say they feel like they are sitting there and waiting to die.”

The violence in South Sudan in April occurred just days before the council adopted a resolution calling for sexualized violence to be included in the definition of acts forbidden by ceasefires and in ceasefire-monitoring agreements. It also urged all parties in conflict to stop committing acts of sexualized violence, and called on UN member states to investigate and prosecute perpetrators of sexualized violence.

“Members of the international community,” Misaka said as she looked around the room. “We need you to work with us. Do not forget our country, our people, our women.”

More articles by Category: International, Violence against women
More articles by Tag: War, Ethnic cleansing, Rape, Africa, Sexualized violence



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