“I am aware that about 70 women have been raped, and many have felt forced to leave the protection site because of being stigmatized.”
One short, shocking sentence, spoken by a woman staying at the Protection of Civilians site in Juba, sums up why we are here, discussing the horrors of sexual violence and its grave consequences.
“Stigma targeting rape survivors can be deadlier than the act of violence itself,” adds another internally displaced woman.
The sad truth of the matter is that sexual violence continues to be rife in South Sudan, with survivors of these assaults customarily being punished twice. They, rather than the perpetrators of these heinous crimes, are often blamed, shamed and ostracized by their own communities and families.
The South Sudan Council of Churches, a potentially powerful voice in a country where just about everyone is a believer, used the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict (19 June), to add its weight to combat the pervasive plague of harassment and forced sex.
Perhaps more importantly, in its statement the Council strongly denounces the stigma frequently attached to the victims and urges families and friends of survivors to offer them their support instead of their contempt and alienation.
“Its [the Council’s] influence makes it paramount to make the general public aware of its strong stance,” says Huma Khan, the Senior Women Protection Advisor of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan, explaining the rationale of the workshop.
A group of approximately 40 internally displaced persons, a handful of whom are women, have made it to today’s discussion. It is being held in an old hangar, frequently used for church services, and the atmosphere is solemn. The topic is huge, complex, sensitive – and uncomfortably close to home.
“Our protection sites are mirrors of the society, and in South Sudan, especially since the outbreak of the conflict in 2013, sexual violence has become so common it has almost become normalized because people know that they can perpetrate sexual violence and get away with it”, says Huma Khan.
She adds that cases of sexual harassment and rapes are reported even within the protection site, and while perpetrators are often apprehended it is sometimes not enough to hold them accountable.
“Often women and girls don’t speak up, so taking further action is difficult. Families and communities are very much pushing them [survivors of sexual violence] to keep silent, because they are seen as having lost their purity, or dignity, which of course should not be the interpretation.”
Attendees who speak up unanimously acknowledge the prevalence and disturbing frequency of sexual violence surrounding them.
Participants talked relatively freely about who they believe are committing these crimes (men with arms) and why (because some men have arms, most of them say), but with the notable exceptions of two women nobody addresses the painfully sensitive issue of stigmatization of survivors.
“Communities need to become more sympathetic so that women and girls can talk about it, to support them so that they can seek medical assistance and also to take cases to the judicial system if they wish to do so,” Huma Khan concluded.