Israel, as a liberal democratic country dedicated to human rights and women’s rights, seeks to help South Sudan address gender-based violence. Violence against women remains a significant problem within South Sudan. Helen Animashaun, a volunteer working with the South Sudan Women Empowerment Center, wrote in the Huffington Post, “The reality of life for women in the world’s newest country is harsh; it is full of challenges and limited opportunities.” She asserted, “Access to healthcare and education in South Sudan is simply not an option in many places. The statistics speak for themselves: more than 80% of women are illiterate and one in seven women die as a result of pregnancy and childbirth.” Nevertheless, Animashaun declared, “the greatest challenge women experience is the social acceptance of sexual and gender based violence.”
According to Human Rights Watch, about 48 percent of young girls in South Sudan between the ages of 15 and 19 are forced into marriages by their families, who are often given generous gifts as dowries in return. If a girl dares to resist, they can face violent actions from their families. In fact, some South Sudanese girls are even murdered or raped for attempting to resist such arranged teenage marriages. For example, in one particularly brutal case, a 17-year-old girl was raped and beaten to death in South Sudan for not submissively accepting her family’s decision to marry her off to a 75-year-old man.
Ophelie Namiech, IsraAID’s country director in South Sudan, asserted, “After more than 40 years of conflict, displacement and poverty, the people of South Sudan are facing enormous social challenges!” She continued, “Violence against women is pervasive and has been exacerbated by decades of war that have left many children without a proper family structure, education or health care.” Thus, “A large portion of the population suffers from deep trauma that prevents them from being fully included in the development process.” Namiech claims that Juba, South Sudan’s capital city, has not been spared these challenges facing all of South Sudan. “On the contrary, rapes, human trafficking, and under-aged prostitution have all dramatically increased due to rapid and uncontrolled urbanization,” she claims.
Namiech emphasized, “In particular the children in some slum areas are exposed to appalling and sustained sexual abuse. Sexual pressure is very strong in Juba – especially in the most vulnerable areas of the capital where young girls quickly fall into the cycle of sexual violence and exploitation.” She asserted that it is not uncommon to see girls as young as eight years old in Juba raped. “In those areas, those girls are condemned to spend their lives in the street, looking for food in the garbage behind market places and being surrounded by violent drunk and drugged men who abused and mistreat them,” Namiech proclaimed.
IsraAID, as an Israeli humanitarian organization seeking to improve the status of women within developing countries in addition to providing pivotal emergency relief assistance, has a Gender Based Violence Program in South Sudan that works with local service providers such as the State Ministry of Gender and Social Development, the South Sudan Police Service as well as several local community-based organizations to help them better address violence against women in South Sudan. IsraAID trains, mentors, and accompanies these South Sudanese actors so that one day they will better be able to address cases of violence against women on their own.
In 2012 alone, IsraAID trained 172 service providers on gender-based violence, as well as how to design and implement gender-based violence related programs. Nevertheless, despite IsraAID’s best efforts, Namiech claimed, “When we monitor the situation in the slum areas with our local partner Confident Children Out of Conflict (the only local NGO that has a shelter for 35 vulnerable girls) we often find very young girls wandering the slum areas alone without any clothes on, who rapidly become surrounded by abusive men.” Namiech has attempted to help such young girls, yet unfortunately there are many of them. “I have seen those scenes myself. They are heart-broken,” she asserts.
Nevertheless, despite the violent plight endured by way too many women living in South Sudan, IsraAID has been able to make a difference there. According to Namiech, “A few weeks ago, the police and social workers that IsraAID has been training since 2012, have encouraged reporting and succeeded in bringing before court the case of a 14-year old girl victim of rape. This is, in itself, a small successful first step.” In addition, IsraAID has sponsored advocacy sessions on gender based violence within South Sudan involving legal, social and security services as well as members of the South Sudanese community.
IsraAID has also supported awareness sessions on gender based violence in schools and raising public awareness about this issue in the local media as well as training sessions and workshops designed to increase cooperation between social workers and the police in order to work towards increasing reportage of cases of gender based violence. In February 2013, more cases in fact were brought to courts than previously, although there still is much work to be done on this issue. Yet, what IsraAID is doing by training local South Sudanese actors on gender based violence is a step in the right direction towards improving the plight of all South Sudanese women.
By Rachel Avraham