SAMUEL ADWOK DENG & JANET ADONGO
“Some women here are coming into Malakal town for the first time!”
Rachel Mayik, more commonly known as “Mama Rachel”, is excited and full of joy as she speaks to the group of women who have come together to learn more about conflict related sexual violence.
It is especially important for her to see displaced women staying at the United Nations Mission in South Sudan’s protection site mingle freely with fellow sisters who live in town – a rarity in a region where many women have not been confident enough to venture out of their safe haven for a long, long time.
Mama Rachel is the women’s representative from the protection site. Today, she and many others are the beneficiaries of a training conducted in commemoration of the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict.
“We have been taken through a wonderful lecture on reproductive health and conflict related cases of sexual violence. We have learnt that it is important to report these cases so that we can receive medical treatment and counseling,” she says.
Another participant, Achol Nyibong, shares Mama Rachel’s sentiments of the lessons learnt regarding prevention of sexually transmitted diseases at the workshop.
“I have also learnt that it is important for victims of sexual violence to seek medical assistance.”
It has been difficult to accurately quantify cases of sexual violence in the region largely because the few reported cases are believed to be the tip of an iceberg. There is still a lot of stigma and community pressure surrounding the reporting of these sensitive incidents.
Fear is another important factor. Victims are often afraid of reprisal, especially since their tormentors very often are non-UN personnel tasked with protecting them. Additionally, many victims have fled the conflict either to protection sites or to refugee camps, and being in such a stressful situation sometimes means that seeking redress becomes less of a priority.
The mission’s Human Rights Regional Coordinator for the Greater Upper Nile region, Christian Mikala, emphasized the importance of reporting these incidents. The cases that he is aware of are varied and range from rape and attempted rape to harassment, abduction and torture. Testimonies and corroboration of the facts are essential to identify perpetrators and engage available referral mechanisms.
“Conflict related sexual violence (CRSV) is a scourge that permeates the very fabric of our society and it is everyone’s responsibility to report it. Reporting helps everyone involved to build a true picture of a serious human rights violation and take preventive actions, which is one important way of eliminating CRSV” he says and adds:
“It is encouraging to see that government authorities in this and other regions are acknowledging CRSV and its negative effects on civilians in general and women and girls in particular.”
The Malakal human rights team is already engaged in a training of trainers to establish a pool of qualified female peer supporters and human rights defenders who can offer support to victims of sexual violence. One of the key lessons being passed on is the importance of differentiating between gender-based violence, violence against women, sexual violence and conflict related sexual violence.
“People tend to believe that gender equals female. Men can and are also victims of sexual violence. It is also a common misconception that women are only subjected to sexual violence, and violence against women is almost a taboo in Africa. These forms of violence are a broader phenomenon that occur in conflict zones as well as post-conflict zones and are continuously perpetrated in the family, if they are not addressed,” Christian Mikala concludes.
Hazel Dewet, head of the peacekeeping mission’s Field Office in Malakal, also stressed the obligation of the state in holding those committing CRSV accountable, and also to strengthen the redress mechanisms available. The state, she stressed, bears the primary responsibility for the protection of civilians.
The commemoration of the day was led by the Mission’s Human Rights Division and supported by its medical section as well as local authorities in Malakal.