Weaponizing Gender Violence in South Sudan

February 11, 2017, A soldier walks past women carrying their belongings near Benitu, northern South Sudan. Photo Credit: Reuters/Siegfried Modola

By: Alicia Chavy, Columnist

In South Sudan, legacies of violence against women, a weak state structure, and lack of security guarantees on an individual level are severely undermining the prospects of a peaceful conflict resolution. Warring parties are weaponizing beliefs about gender – particularly the stereotype of women as victims and helpless individuals in war – to justify war crimes and the continuation of violence. As the South Sudanese transitional government implements the September 2018 peace agreement, it must counter the normalization of sexual and gender-based violence to prevent the eruption of future clashes.

Accounts of intrastate conflicts reveal a gendered typology and attitude towards women, exposing the power differentiation in how governments view women’s security.[i] In war, men are seen as soldiers and protectors – superior beings that can engage in violence. In contrast, women are perceived as nurturing, peaceful, and helpless – non-legitimate participants of war.[ii] Many societies undergoing civil conflicts do not take into account women’s experiences, which are seen as a private matter,[iii] thereby rendering gender-based violence as one of many overlooked atrocities.

Governments and societies institutionalize and perpetuate stereotypes of gender roles during wartime, weaponizing gender beliefs to legitimize acts of violence.[iv] In South Sudan’s ongoing civil conflict, sexual and gender-based crimes – such as rape, forced mutilations, and abductions – have become pervasive.[v] In July 2018, the United Nations (UN) accused South Sudanese soldiers and allied militias of engaging in a campaign of sexual crimes, with 120 women raped, and 232 civilians killed, in opposition-held villages in Unity state from April-May 2018.[vi] Additional Human Rights Watch (HWR) and UN reports exposed government and militia forces engaging in such crimes with impunity.[vii]

On February 7, 2019, the United Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) stated that the South Sudanese government may succeed in establishing peace and order in the country.[viii] Yet despite what the report claims, the security situation remains stagnant, or even has deteriorated, in key regions, particularly in the Central Equatoria and Rubkona. Clashes and violent crimes have become normal occurrences in these two regions, and a vast number of civilians are fleeing.[ix] Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) indicated in November 2018 that the increase in population movements to reach food distributions and safety in both regions has resulted in a rise of sexual and gender-based violence. Although women travel in large groups for safety, they are assaulted by increasingly larger groups of aggressive men, violently raped, beaten, and robbed of their valuables, including ration cards for food distributions.[x] In December 2018, the UN stated that over 2,300 cases of sexual violence had been reported in the first half of 2018.[xi]

While South Sudanese authorities acknowledge the occurrence of sexual violence, they deny the large-scale of reported rapes by international organizations such as HRW, MSF, and the UN.[xii] The government continuously fails to address widespread gender-based crimes, as its weak state structure cannot provide security and legal guarantees for its civilians. Successful convictions of sexual violence against South Sudanese women have yet to occur. A trial against government forces who engaged in a February 2017 mass rape in Kubi has yet to conclude. The government has stalled the African Union (AU)’s efforts to establish a hybrid court in South Sudan to try serious crimes, including gender-based violence. Moreover, mass rapes and gender-based crimes continue to be under-reported.[xiii]

Long-standing, gender-biased norms come at the expense of understanding the importance of the security of women and their role in peacemaking. Several scholars argue that measures of women’s physical security should be strongly associated with measures of state security.[xiv] For example, Gerald Patterson shows that violence against women at a local level is correlated with violence at the communal and state level. States that condone violence against women at an individual level permit men to engage in antisocial acts, thus increasing the likelihood that men will experience low barriers to engage in violence on a larger scale, including interstate violence.[xv]

There is an opportunity for the South Sudan transitional government to address gender-based violence through the newly revitalized peace agreement signed in September 2018. First, the South Sudanese government must grant UNMISS, security sector assistance actors, and humanitarian organizations access to isolated and vulnerable areas to help safeguard the security of women and civilians. According to a February 2019 report on the security conditions in South Sudan, violence is almost non-existent when peacekeepers are present.[xvi] Second, the African Union and key peace implementors must continue to pressure the transitional government to fulfill the requirement of including 35 percent of women across executive branches.[xvii] Since the September 2018 agreements, only three women have been added to key transitional institutions. Diversifying the executive arm will ensure that institutions are built in a gender-sensitive way, focusing on the protection of civilians from all forms of violence, tackling gender-sensitive issues (such as domestic violence), and improving access to water, food, and healthcare facilities.[xviii] Third, the African Union must move unilaterally to establish the hybrid court and implement transitional justice mechanisms guaranteed in the September 2018 agreements, designed to deter and punish those responsible for sexual and gender-based violence. Fourth, The UN Human Rights Council, UNMISS, human rights activists, and the media must continue to report gender-based violence in a timely manner to collect and preserve evidence of abuses, which can help future prosecutions and promote accountability.

International institutions and the South Sudanese government must confront the reality of gender-based violence as an indicator of the degrading security situation, rather than continuing to overlook and normalize abuses.[xix] By prioritizing human security, transitional authorities and peace negotiators can both protect individuals as well as prevent the outbreak of future intrastate conflict.


[i] Florence Gaub and Julia Lisiecka, “Women in Daesh” EUISS, October 2016, https://www.iss.europa.eu/sites/default/files/EUISSFiles/Brief_27_Women_in_Daesh.pdf

[ii] Laura Sjoberg, Gender, War, and Conflict (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2014), 26.

[iii] Cynthia Enloe, Globalization and Militarization (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007), 9.

[iv] Ibid., 15.

[v] Nyagoah Pur, “South Sudan: Does Juba Even Care About Protecting Girls From Sexual Violence?” Human Rights Watch, February 11, 2019, https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/02/11/south-sudan-does-juba-even-care-about-protecting-girls-sexual-violence.

[vi] “Warring Parties in South Sudan Abducted Hundreds of Women and Girls -UN,” EWN, Accessed February 20, 2019, https://ewn.co.za/2018/10/25/warring-parties-in-south-sudan-abducted-hundreds-of-women-and-girls-un; Lisa Schlein, “New Violence in South Sudan Sends Thousands Fleeing to DR Congo,” VOA, February 12, 2019, https://www.voanews.com/a/new-violence-in-south-sudan-sends-thousands-fleeing-to-dr-congo/4783305.html; Peter Beaumont, “Mass Rape and Killings in South Sudan may constitute war crimes, says UN,” The Guardian, July 10, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2018/jul/10/south-sudan-government-forces-accused-potential-war-crimes-horrific-acts.

[vii] “South Sudan: Killings, Rapes, Looting in Juba,” Human Rights Watch, August 15, 2016, https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/08/15/south-sudan-killings-rapes-looting-juba; Nick Cumming-Bruce, “Sexual Violence on the Rise in South Sudan, U.N. Says,” New York Times, February 15, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/15/world/africa/south-sudan-rape-sexual-violence.html.

[viii] Carol Van Dam, “UNMISS Boss: Conditions Improving in South Sudan,” VOA, February 7, 2019, https://www.voanews.com/a/unmiss-boss-conditions-improving-in-south-sudan/4775603.html.

[ix] “13 Civilians, 7 Soldiers Killed during Fresh Clashes in South Sudan’s Equatoria” Sudan Tribune, February 13, 2019, http://sudantribune.com/spip.php?article67064; https://www.voanews.com/a/new-violence-in-south-sudan-sends-thousands-fleeing-to-dr-congo/4783305.html.

[x] “125 Women and Girls Seek Emergency Assistance in Bentiu after Horrific Sexual Violence,” Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) International, November 30, 2018, https://www.msf.org/125-women-and-girls-seek-emergency-assistance-bentiu-after-horrific-sexual-violence-south-sudan.

[xi] “UN Says More Than 150 Women, Girls Raped in South Sudan,” VOA, December 4, 2018, https://www.voanews.com/a/un-south-sudan-sexual-violence/4685819.html.

[xii] “South Sudan: Does Juba Even Care About Protecting Girls From Sexual Violence?” Human Rights Watch, December 4, 2019, https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/02/11/south-sudan-does-juba-even-care-about-protecting-girls-sexual-violence; Nick Cumming-Bruce, “Sexual Violence on the Rise in South Sudan, U.N. Says.”

[xiii] Nick Cumming-Bruce, “Sexual Violence on the Rise in South Sudan, U.N. Says.”

[xiv] Valerie M. Hudson et al., “The Heart of the Matter: The Security of Women and the Security of States,” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Winter 2008/09, https://www.belfercenter.org/publication/heart-matter-security-women-and-security-states; Gerald R. Patterson, “A Comparison of Models for Interstate Wars and for Individual Violence,” Perspectives on Psychological Science 3, no. 3 (May 1, 2008): 203–23.

[xv] Ibid.

[xvi] Carol Van Dam, “UNMISS Boss: Conditions Improving in South Sudan.”

[xvii] “Women’s Representation Vital to Realizing South Sudan Revitalized Agreement, Peacekeeping Chief Tells Security Council,” UN Security Council, November 16, 2019, https://reliefweb.int/report/south-sudan/women-s-representation-vital-realizing-south-sudan-revitalized-agreement.

[xviii] Bel Trew, “South Sudan’s Civil War May Be over, but the Need for Humanitarian Funding Is Ever More Urgent,|” The Independent, February 20, 2019, https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/south-sudan-civil-war-famine-humanitarian-crisis-funding-boma-aid-a8772321.html.

[xix] John Hursh, “Is Time Already Running Out for South Sudan’s New Peace Deal?” WPR, January, 7, 2019, https://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/articles/27111/is-time-already-running-out-for-south-sudan-s-new-peace-deal

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