Combating Systematic Rape: South Sudan’s Struggle for Peace

Female peace activists in South Sudan have proposed a nationwide sex strike to end the country’s civil war. The proposal emerged from a meeting of more than 90 women, several of which were members of parliament, in the capital city of Juba. A sex strike was just one of many proposed ideas, all aimed at encouraging men to seek a peaceful settlement to the ongoing conflict.

Tobias Atari Okori, from the government- backed South Sudan Peace and Reconciliation Commission acknowledged that the idea highlights how desperate people are for the war to end. “People are experiencing great suffering, and it is the women, children and the aged who are suffering the worst,” he told Agence France-Presse.

After gaining independence from Sudan in July 2011, the young country erupted into violence in December 2013. Fighting broke out when forces loyal to former Vice President Riek Machar took up arms against government soldiers commanded by President Salva Kiir. Though triggered by a political dispute, the civil war has taken on a distinctly ethic dimension, perpetrated by a mainly Dinka army and a predominately Nuer rebel force. With at least 10,000 South Sudanese dead,1.7 million displaced, and more than 2 million facing starvation, the world’s youngest country is on the brink of a humanitarian disaster.

In addition to the mass violence and killings, South Sudan has witnessed an alarming amount of systematic rape. Following a six-day mission to the country, UN special envoy on sexual violence Zainab Bangura reported that levels of rape are the worst she has ever seen. Officials at a hospital in Juba told Bangura that 74 percent of rape and sexual assault victims were under the age of 19. The youngest they treated was only 2-years-old. One victim claimed that she was among 18 women raped by government soldiers in Palop. According to the woman, soldiers forced large wooden sticks inside the vaginas of seven women who refused to be raped, all of whom died.

A report by Amnesty International indicated that rape and sexual abuse are not just by-products of war, but are used as a deliberate military strategy. The report states that rape is often used in ethnic conflicts as a way for attackers to perpetuate their authority and redraw ethnic boundaries. If one group wants to control another, they can often do so by impregnating women of the opposing community, which they believe will result in the community’s destruction. In the Bosnian War, systematic rape was implemented as a strategy of ethnic cleansing. In Sudan’s Darfur region, the pro-government Janjaweed militias used mass rape to punish, humiliate, and control non-Arab groups. Presently in South Sudan, rebel fighters have used local radio stations to incite the rape of Darfuri and Dinka women.

Though the strategic use of rape in war is not a new phenomenon, it has only recently begun to be documented. Bangura notes that, “If people are raped because of their ethnicity it means someone has been instructed. It is a crime that is commanded.” Because much of the sexual violence has been “commanded” within a military context, structures can be implemented to ensure that such attacks stopped. With this in mind, women in South Sudan are joining together to come up with ways to end the violence. One proposal was to appeal to the wives of President Salva Kiir and his rival, Riek Machar, to urge their husbands to end the fighting. An even larger proposal was to mobilize all women in South Sudan to deny their partners sex until peace returns. Though the idea of a sex strike may seem far-fetched, sex strikes have proven to be effective strategies in the past.

Perhaps the most notable sex strike was under the leadership of Leymah Gbowee, who won a Nobel Peace Prize for her role in ending the 14-year Second Liberian Civil War in 2003. Thousands of women joined the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace, which forced an end to the war and led to the imprisonment of former president Charles Taylor, the first head of state to be convicted of war crimes. Shortly after the conflict ended, Liberia elected Africa’s first female president. Despite the success of Mass Action, Gbowee admits that the sex strike itself did not have a tremendous practical effect. The women employed other tactics, such as bringing Muslim and Christian women together to pray for peace and staging nonviolent protests. However, the strike did bring much needed attention to the civil war. While discussing the role the sex strike had in ending the war, Gbowee stated, “Every man is interested in the act of sex. We withheld sex from our spouses to get attention…we said, ‘We need you to take a stand.’ And they did.”

Generally, sex strikes appear to be most successful when the women involved have little economic independence, when their demands are specific and realistic, and when they possess endurance and strength in numbers. The proposed sex strike in South Sudan has the potential to deliver real impact, as long as the groups remain open to pursuing additional strategies. Though the efforts of female peace activists may attract much-needed attention to the conflict, lasting peace in South Sudan will require the combined efforts of local communities, the national government, and international society.

Definitive action against sexual violence has already begun. Zainab Bangura concluded her visit to the country with a Joint Communique with the government, which outlined explicit steps the government must take to address and prevent sexual violence crimes. These include issuing clear orders through the army chain of command prohibiting sexual violence and ensuring the victims of sexual violence receive the necessary care and support.

South Sudan now faces a pivotal moment in its nationhood. It can either reject the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war or it can continue down the same destructive path, thus decimating an entire country’s hopes for a better future. It is up to the people of South Sudan, backed by the support of the international community, to stand together and restore the peace they once fought so hard for.

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