South Sudan is currently in the midst of the worst refugee crisis Africa has ever seen. With 1.5 million individuals having fled the country and over 2.1 million internally displaced, the state has already seen more conflict in its 6 years of existence than many of its southern neighbours. Dubbed “the Syria of Africa” by onlookers, it is easy to blame corruption and tribal conflict for the outburst of civil war; but the story of South Sudan is one incredibly complex and much more human.
The issue of gendered violence is prevalent in refugee camps across the nation. According to UN officials, 70% of women seeking shelter in these locations have been raped, with the “vast majority” of the men committing these crimes identified as “soldiers and police”. Many women die from injuries caused by assaults, yet survivors are dissuaded from reporting and disclosing crimes as they face social exclusion and even violence from angered husbands. According to personal accounts many of these assaults occur when, driven by debilitating poverty, women leave the camps in search for cheaper food and goods; outside the confines of fences and UN blue helmet patrols the women are vulnerable to attack from groups of soldiers. Government spokespeople, however, have been quick to argue that “there is no rape at all” in these refugee camps and, according to the Guardian, have even gone as far as accusing journalists of falsifying testimonies in attempts to frame government troops.
It isn’t just South Sudanese soldiers, however, who appear to be failing to protect some of the most vulnerable refugees. There are multiple reports of women being assaulted “under the UN’s nose”; individuals have been attacked merely meters away from UN posts and moments away from entering camps. Recent accounts made to Human Rights Watch detail that peacekeepers have stood by and observed whilst these rapes were occurring, for fear that intervening could escalate further conflict between guards and government troops. One woman, renamed Theresa and featured heavily in a Guardian report, stated that “the peacekeepers at the gate saw me being captured… but they did nothing.”
It is clear that more provisions need to be made to tackle this crisis of civil war. In 2016, the UN mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) received only 33% of its fundraising goal, and it has been admitted that a further $782 million needs to be raised to ensure refugees can be supported. Cost aside, the UNMISS itself has, both literally and figuratively, come under fire as of late; the commander of the mission has been sacked, the mission itself labelled as “chaotic”, and, despite the evidence of escalating tensions between peacekeepers and soldiers, the absence of a mandate to respond to attack has seen blue helmets fleeing and abandoning both posts and civilians. With the UNHCR warning that the stage has been set for descent into genocide, it is more important than ever to consider rape as a weapon of war and forced pregnancy as a tool of ethnic cleansing.
Ultimately, the success of UNMISS hinges on the funding and mandate it receives. Decisions need to be made further down the UN chain of command to allocate further resources and authority to peacekeepers on the ground, and light needs to be shed on the gendered dimension of the violence that threatens refugees. Vulnerable women need to be protected; not just for the stability of South Sudan, but for their own safety.
Photo: Flickr, Steve Evans