Children born of rape in South Sudan's civil war must be integrated into their families and communities to ensure lasting peace in the country, aid worker Christine Ngbaazande said on Monday as she won a prestigious award.
Sometimes looked on as enemies, such children are often rejected not only by their communities but also by their mothers, said Ngbaazande, who works for global charity World Vision.
Ostracized, they grow up with few options, leaving them vulnerable to recruitment by armed groups which perpetuates the violence, she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Yambio in the south of the country.
On Monday, Ngbaazande was named winner of the Bond Humanitarian Award, which recognizes hidden "superheroes" working in often dangerous environments.
Rape has been used as a weapon of war in South Sudan, where conflict has killed about 400,000 people and uprooted millions more since flaring up in 2013, two years after the country gained independence from Sudan.
Ngbaazande, a 41-year-old mother-of-three, works with faith, community and youth leaders, as well as women's groups, to counter the stigma faced by children born of rape.
"The girls cannot accept these children, and family members are not interested in supporting them," she said. "But these children are God's children ... and they are the future generation of the country."
One of the girls she has helped is a 13-year-old who was raped by armed men after becoming separated from her parents during violence. After giving birth, she left her baby at a church.
"After a lot of counseling she has accepted the child. She has a nice relationship now with him," Ngbaazande said.
But changing attitudes is hard.
"It's not easy to change mindsets — especially with men.
It's not easy for them to accept what a woman is saying," said Ngbaazande, who, unusually for a woman, zips around Yambio on a motorbike.
She recalled one case where a father forced his 14-year-old daughter to marry a 65-year-old man, threatening to kill her if she refused. When the teenager fled to the bush she was raped and became pregnant.
The aid worker said the father eventually realized he had made a mistake and welcomed back the girl and her child.
Ngbaazande's passion for her work is partly spurred by her own experience as a refugee, having been forced to flee to the Democratic Republic of Congo as a teenager.
She said abandoned and stigmatized children were at risk of joining armed groups "because they think there is nothing else they can do in their life."
"My work is to ensure these children are integrated because the best place for a child to be is in a family," she added. "If we don't intervene and just leave these children ... it increases violence. That's why this work is very important. It creates peace (in) communities and in the country."
The conflict was triggered by a dispute between President Salva Kiir and his then deputy Riek Machar. The two men signed a peace deal in September.
Previous agreements have unraveled, but Ngbaazande says her country has turned a corner.
"I believe 100 percent we have a permanent peace," she said. "The challenge now is how to restore total peace to the minds of our vulnerable women and children who have experienced a lot of violence — and give them hope."
Bond, an umbrella group of international development organizations, announced the award at its annual conference in London.