A family receives an aid package outside the town of Leer, South Sudan

As South Sudan’s civil war rages, the numbers it displaces are soaring. The world’s newest nation has become a cauldron of lawlessness. Its women, who live in daily fear of gender-based violence (GBV), are bearing the brunt of male anger, despair and boredom. The road to improvement will be slow, and inspiration scant. But it is present, reports Sean Williams.

A woman and her malnourished child wait to receive treatment at the Leer Hospital, South Sudan

A woman and her malnourished child wait to receive treatment at the Leer Hospital, South Sudan

In a crowded Juba street, above cars, cattle and chattel heading for slaughter, a billboard pokes at the sky. Its message, writ large against a picture of a happy couple, their hands held tight, is clear: “I CHOOSE NON-VIOLENCE IN MY RELATIONSHIP. WHAT ABOUT YOU?” The ad’s message is simple, its need great. Juba is the scorched, cobbled capital of the world’s newest nation, South Sudan, which barely three years into existence has been thrown into a bloody and complex civil war.

Men, women and children have died in their thousands and over a million have been displaced in giant, dystopian refugee camps. One of those camps lies in Juba’s dusty Tomping district, secured by the UN’s mission in South Sudan (UNMISS). It is crowded, dirty and dangerous. Even at midday, when the sun seems to burn a hole in the very earth on which it stands and Juba falls into narcoleptic silence, tensions in the camp are high. South Sudan has dozens of tribes but it is the rift between its two largest – the Dinka and the Nuer – which have lit the touch paper of war.

South Sudan became an independent nation on July 9, 2011. Campaigners rejoiced as the world’s newest state was born. But tensions between the country’s two major tribes, the Dinka and the Nuer, were already driving a wedge through progress. In December 2013 President Salva Kiir Mayardit, whose trademark is a cowboy hat given to him by George W Bush, accused his deputy Riek Machar, a Nuer, of attempting to oust him in a coup d’etat. Now, with December 15th last year marking the war’s first, South Sudan is on its knees. Women have increasingly become fodder in the region’s bloody power play. Sexual abuse and rape is commonplace as men act on fear and disenfranchisement. Displacement has left women particularly vulnerable. Husbands and partners have fled to the front lines. Thousands have returned in bags. The politics of Kiir and Machar have entrenched clan lines. The camps are divided. One Dinka woman, a carer, tells me she got pregnant by a Nuer man in the Juba camp. When she went into labour she walked to a quiet corner of a latrine, gave birth, and drowned the baby, a boy. When his body was found floating the next day riots broke out between men and boys wielding sticks and homemade bows and arrows. “It was mad,” she says. “Unstoppable.” Reports of mass rapes in states nearer the front lines, which straddle oil fields and the border with Sudan, are often. There, the risk of abuse is higher: young men in fatigues have replaced village elders. In Juba flatbeds full of AK47-toting mercenaries are everywhere. The risk of rape is exacerbated simply by women’s proximity to soldiers, many of whom are mentally damaged.

South Sudanese soldiers secure a road near Juba's airport

South Sudanese soldiers secure a road near Juba’s airport

If the situation is grim in South Sudan’s hot, dry season, when the rain falls it becomes almost apocalyptic. From May to October rains can cut off entire swathes of the country. Some towns can barely be reached by plane. This year conditions at a displacement camp in the northern town of Bentiu were so bad people slept standing up. Médecins Sans Frontières claimed the situation was “incompatible with human dignity”. It is among these unfathomable crucibles of suffering that women are most vulnerable. Some report pushing bed frames against their doors to prevent daily intrusions. When abuses do take place, there is little recourse to justice. A CARE International poll found that only seven per cent of women report GBV immediately. Forty-three per cent keep quiet out of fear. South Sudan has the world’s highest maternal mortality rate. The UN’s 1,300 police are overworked and understaffed. Their efforts to rub out GBV have won few fans. The number of cases presents a huge problem for those trying to track GBV. “It’s difficult to say – there’s been a 30 to 40 per cent increase because we just didn’t know before the past few years,” says CARE’s Nana Ndeda when we meet in a crumbling hotel in Juba. “Leaders haven’t been strong in condemning GBV. So our job is to empower the government to take control of it.” Woman are still an underclass in South Sudan.

Despite five of its 29 government ministers being women, girls make up under 40 per cent of primary school enrolments and illiteracy is high. Gender roles are sharply drawn in a culture still couched in nomadism and agriculture. Women represent an economic opportunity and can quite literally be sold to suitors. In a war-torn nation with money hard to come by, that potential is amplified.

Mary is walking from a bar in Tomping, a rugged, smoking corner of Juba, to the car driven for a living by her husband, Cisse, an Ethiopian who moved two years back. The sun is setting and Tomping, whose main street is a wrinkle-tin warren of restaurants, bars and cafés, is lighting up. Some local guys sling insults at the tall, long-haired Dinka as she strides towards Cisse’s battered old 4×4, the only thing capable of navigating Tomping’s lunar roads. One throws a beer can. This is normal, she says, as the car plods away. Mary’s family had plans to sell her to a local man who returned, with money, from the US when South Sudan won its independence: it was their ticket from poverty. Mary had other plans. Now the couple lives in fear: Mary’s suitor is a prominent businessman. The law can be bent. “Now if I see him people say he will kill me,” says Cisse. “Mary cries every night. We need to leave here.” Women are often married young in South Sudan, although they are almost entirely spared the female genital mutilation that blights the country’s northern neighbour. But to concentrate on some sort of cultural defect is orientalism, says Felicia Jones, reproductive health coordinator at the International Medical Corps, an NGO. “Let’s remember that this stuff still happens in the west,” she says. “Women might be treated better on the face of it. But we still don’t earn as much as men. People here may wolf whistle and not realise that it’s a form of abuse. That still happens in the US.” The situation is bleak. And, like South Sudan’s war, it shows little sign of letting up. But there are signs of improvement. One upside to the conflict is that it has at least attracted the international community to the region, says Ndeda, and the help that brings. CARE, she adds, has been busy empowering existing infrastructure to reduce maternal complications and educate about GBV. This, she says, will help reduce its prevalence.

Internally displaced people sell food at the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) camp in Malakal

Internally displaced people sell food at the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) camp in Malakal

And in a country whose infrastructure is so weakened, Jones says that small changes can make a huge difference – especially in camps like Tomping’s. “In some places we just separated the men’s and women’s latrines and women said they felt much safer,” she says.

For now though, GBV remains a devastating and ever-present aspect of South Sudan’s collective tragedy. And, like its many displacement camps, it lays a dystopian carbuncle on the country’s landscape.


Images: Getty 

Main image: A family receives an aid package outside the town of Leer, South Sudan