“Free at last” after decades of civil war with the north, South Sudan is building a nation from scratch. As women flood to the world’s newest capital city, Juba, aid agencies say an effect of so many years of violence is that most women are unaware of their rights. One Israeli group, though, is battling to stamp out gender-based violence.
In a crowded and sweltering room in the capital, Israeli aid agency Israid has brought together social workers and police to discuss ways of reducing what the social workers consider widespread violence towards women in the capital.
As the social workers voice concerns about security, and talk of cases of rape and beatings that were never reported or addressed, their fears and frustrations highlight the lack of awareness by the police toward gender-based crimes.
Learning more about gender-based violence
The police say rape is difficult to deal with, and they demonstrate a startling lack of knowledge about how to detect a rape, whether the age of the woman is important and whether it is possible to bring the perpetrator to justice until a baby is born.
One speaker at the session - Anna Albina Liberio - is a rare example of a female police investigator who has risen through the ranks and is winning the respect of her male peers.
But Liberio said she has never investigated a case of gender-based violence.
Crimes ignored, underreported
As her superior, Colonel Tranquillo, translates, she explained why women are suffering in silence in South Sudan and why cases of violence toward women are hugely underreported.
“She is voicing to women in South Sudan that they are capable. Most of them, they don’t know their rights, and they have no knowledge about the violence or anything concerning their rights, so the knowledge is the key to combat those crimes,” said Tranquillo.
Tranquillo said a large number of girls living on the streets with no parents often are scared to come forward and report sexual violence to the police. He also said a lot of domestic violence is carried out at night to avoid the community’s watch.
Israid is training a total of 45 new social workers in Juba. The agency's director for South Sudan, Ophelie Namiech, said Israel is starting in the relatively booming capital rather than the remote and conflict-ridden states because many unaccompanied women have flocked here from neighboring countries and are particularly vulnerable.
“We realized that the problem of gender-based violence was not only extremely important here, but increasing since independence, because of migration, and because gender-based violence, we realized, was not only a weapon during the war but it's also a consequence of war - you know, traumatized people, especially with kids, girls under the age of 18,” said Namiech.
Cultural barriers complicate matters
Namiech said traditions and stigma surrounding violence toward women are major challenges, and that in some villages assessed by the aid agency, rape is considered “normal."
At the country’s main hospital in Juba, social workers sit in a bare, cramped room with hospital blankets draped over desks that are bare, except for a pad and pen.
They say that of the very few cases of rape and violence reported to the police, only when the woman’s life is in danger do they receive cases at the hospital. They say that violence toward women is common, and that raising awareness and increasing the number of social workers is key to protecting women.
The director of gender at South Sudan's Ministry of Social Development, Lily Ismail Yudi, said the chronic lack of awareness of women’s rights makes it difficult to break the cycle of violence.
Breaking a violent cycle
“Due to tradition and cultures, women are not recognized as somebody who is important in the family. If she is, it will be in terms of her services only. Also, these women are not sent to school due to the culture in some areas - they consider that the girl is a source of income,” said Yudi.
She said women usually are married off early so that the family can receive a hefty dowry of cash or cows, or are used as domestic or agricultural workers to support the family.
“This is why by the end of the day, you can find that a girl ended up married without any education, without being exposed to any other communities, to learn about things that can help her in the future,” said Yudi.
Yudi said she hopes that trained social workers can help make women aware of their rights, and that those women will pass the information on to their daughters, and eventually bring the cycle of violence to an end.