From hate speech to rape speech: Women in South Sudan are targets of sexual violence

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By Anna Therese Day

The U.N. describes the crisis in the world’s newest country, where government forces are raping and burning women alive, as “among the gravest in history”

A market in Juba, South Sudan. Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

A market in Juba, South Sudan. Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

In April 2014, armed opposition fighters hijacked the airwaves of Radio Bentiu FM in South Sudan to broadcast a message of terror. Their dispatches quickly escalated from hate speech to rape speech, with opposition fighters calling on men to commit acts of sexualized violence against the women and girls of their rival ethnicities. Specifically, the broadcast incited rebels and ethnic Nuers to attack Dinkas and other government-aligned ethnicities.

The rebels’ tactic, chillingly reminiscent of Rwanda’s genocidal “hate radio,” left civilians bracing for the unspeakable, and international organizations scrambling to respond.

In villages across South Sudan’s oil-rich Unity State, opposition fighters gathered civilians into churches, mosques, and hospitals where armed men separated the crowds based on their ethnicities. Some groups were escorted safely from the buildings; others were shot dead, tortured, sexually abused, burned alive, or abducted into the rebel ranks.

Hundreds were killed in just a few short days, and the attacks are now recognized as one of the deadliest offensives of South Sudan’s ongoing civil war. By May of 2014, the U.N. described the deepening crisis as “among the gravest in history,” with Secretary General Ban Ki-moon warning that the world’s newest nation stood on the brink of genocide, disease, and famine.

Last week, the U.N. Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) released a new investigation into the latest trauma in the South Sudanese conflict. In a sickening case of déjà vu, the report again outlines allegations of rampant killing and sexualized violence, throughout April, in South Sudan’s Unity State. This year, however, it is the South Sudanese government forces accused of perpetrating these crimes.

“This recent upsurge has not only been marked by allegations of killing, rape, abduction, looting, arson and displacement, but by a new brutality and intensity,” reads the UNMISS report, which includes multiple accounts of government forces raping women and burning them alive. “The scope and level of cruelty that has characterized the reports suggests a depth of antipathy that exceeds political differences.”

Yet, despite the magnitude of the crisis, a lack of international political will — combined with the logistical challenges of aid distribution in such an underdeveloped and volatile country — has left South Sudanese civilians trapped in a maze of dangerous options.

The fundraising effort of the U.N.’s Emergency Response for South Sudan lacks nearly 60 percent of its stated funding goal. In the high-stakes landscape of competing international crises, the catastrophes of Syria-Iraq, Ebola, and Nepal have consistently eclipsed that of South Sudan in the eyes of donors over the past two years.

Inside the country, local and international organizations work around the clock on limited budgets but regularly face delivery challenges due to the country’s harsh terrain and hostile environment. At one point last summer, for example, aid organizations encountered the front lines of six different armed groups in their efforts to cross from the helicopter landing to the UN civilian shelter in Bentiu. In a country with few paved roads and torrential thunderstorms, delivery of aid is often limited to aerial drops or helicopter transit, as planes are unable to land in the thick mud and swamps that characterize South Sudan’s rainy season.

“It’s the perfect storm of catastrophes here,” said Aimee Ansari of CARE International from their offices in Juba. “I’ve never seen anything like this. It’s crisis on top of crisis here. There are no breaks.”

CARE International works with more than 600,000 South Sudanese civilians, on efforts including gender-based violence prevention and awareness-raising initiatives. However, their data collection on women’s issues found that nearly 60 percent of survivors of gender-based violence did not report crimes due to the climate of impunity, and 40 percent of their respondents kept quiet out of fear.

“The threat of rape is very real. It paralyzes us,” explained Rebecca, a 24-year-old South Sudanese community organizer, who now lives in one of the U.N.’s civilian encampments in Juba, after having fled Bentiu last year. “But more often, it is not the violence ruining our lives. It’s the poverty, the food shortages that the war has created, and the disease, that are threatening us and our children.”

Last month, an outbreak of cholera further crippled the country’s ailing health system. Thirty-two South Sudanese civilians recently died of cholera, an easily preventable and treatable water-born illness. More than 4.5 million face severe food insecurity due to the conflict’s disruption of South Sudan’s annual harvest. Children are particularly susceptible and vulnerable to cholera and starvation.

Upwards of 2 million residents have been displaced from their homes since the war began in 2013 and, as the world’s newest nation commemorates its four-year anniversary, the fighting continues across South Sudan in other places like Bentiu.

“It brings me courage and faith working with women. It will be the women who rebuild our country because we have seen the most horror,” insisted Rebecca, describing the community-based cholera response team that she and her friends have built with the training of an international aid organization. “But it is also the women who have the least power right now … because we experience the most horror.”

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