In a country where tribal justice rules and police are ill-trained, tackling widespread violence against women can be a tortuous process
“Woman is inferior to man. This isn’t just our tradition – it is written in the book of God,” says William, 43, a police officer from Juba.
This attitude is pervasive in South Sudan where, according to the gender ministry, 70% of women experience some form of violence in their lifetime. In rural areas, where a bridal dowry of cows underpins the local economy, forced and early marriage are common, with at least 45% of girls marrying before they reach adulthood.
For William, who has been a police officer for 20 years, gender violence has never been his concern. Until now. “Usually in my job I deal with things like murder or road traffic accidents. We didn’t see women’s issues as crimes, more as a family issue. But a woman has a right to report this, and this is what we have learned.”
William and his partner, Tony, have a beat that covers Juba way station, a UN transit camp for internally displaced people and refugees in the capital.
Mona, 27, fled her home town of Malakal with her 10-year-old son after her husband was killed. Those living here have virtually no access to work. Like her, many of the women are widows. “We have no one to look after us,” she explains. “There is a lot of violence towards us because the men know that without a father or a husband we can do nothing.”
Her friend, Asunata, has five children. “We came from fighting. We don’t want more fighting, but life is tough here. People steal from each other. My friend sold her body for food but the man didn’t pay her. When she argued with him he beat [her].”
Policing this would be a challenge for any officer but for South Sudan’s poorly paid, ill-trained and often corrupt force, even more so. The NGO IsraAid is training officers like William to deal more sensitively with survivors of gender-based violence.
“When we began this project there was zero connection between the police and the community,” says Angelo Ingi, the NGO’s protection programme manager. “Now, people see officers regularly patrolling the area, they get to know them a little bit and they have more trust. I say to them, please report it. If you don’t, these crimes will not stop. You aren’t alone any more. You have these guys.”
Over the past year, the scheme has trained 20 police officers, five legal personnel and more than 100 social and community workers in investigating crimes, reporting and referral procedures.
Mona has trained as a community volunteer, encouraging women who want to come forward. She explains: “It is hard because we have been through a lot. Soldiers and militia may have harmed us and killed our families, so trusting a person in uniform is not easy for us.”
Ingi says that in the year since the project began there has been a significant increase in hospitals and social workers referring cases, mostly rape or domestic violence, to the police.
But as Masumi Yamashina, gender specialist for the UN children’s agency, Unicef, points out, little data is available on what happens next.
“Most people aren’t even aware of formal legal systems here. Traditionally, people seek justice from informal tribal courts. But their judgments are grossly unfair to women and girls, often ruling that a girl must marry her rapist so the parents can get a dowry, because she’s been defiled and no one will marry her. That’s what they see as a ‘fair’ judgment – from one rape to lifelong institutional rape,” she says.
“For South Sudan to grow as a country it is important that police start to play a role as an entry point in shifting informal justice to formal. But the overall legal system doesn’t protect women. There’s no law prohibiting domestic violence and, although rape is a criminal offence, the police don’t have basic mechanisms like forensics to investigate. Nor are there lawyers available, so women are often pressured to withdraw allegations. I personally only know of one case which went all the way to the court.”
For Carmen Lowry, women’s protection and empowerment technical adviser at the International Rescue Committee (IRC), this isn’t a surprise. “That kind of data is difficult to ascertain during conflict, due to the widespread upheaval, displacement and intense fear that characterises life for civilians – especially women and girls – as they flee for their lives,” she says. “This is particularly the case for South Sudan. The lack of attention on the issue has led to underinvestment in gender-based violence programming, which has resulted in insufficient availability of life-saving services in a country where the need is dire and urgent.”
With support from the UK Department for International Development and in partnership with the Global Women’s Institute at George Washington University, the IRC is assessing the prevalence of gender violence in South Sudan. The study is being implemented under the What Works to Prevent Violence against women and girls programme, which is seeking to build evidence on what drives violence, what works to prevent violence, what makes interventions successful, and how they can be replicated, adapted and scaled up.
A recent report by World Vision found that under-reporting of gender violence is of growing concern not just in South Sudan but across the world’s conflict zones.
Tracy Shields, senior child rights adviser, says: “Legal systems need to be overhauled so survivors can build trust in the rule of law and seek justice which, in turn, sends a message that this crime is unacceptable to everyone, everywhere. We also need to remember that men and boys can experience it too, but data needs to be much improved to tell the full story.”