When International Rescue Committee (IRC) staff met with about 100 women and girls at one of the United Nations mission's protection of civilian sites in South Sudan, they were shocked at what the women told them.
“Every single one of them spoke about the fact that rape was a serious risk to women and girls even when they’re inside the sites and when they’re going outside the sites," said senior IRC advocacy coordinator Melanie Teff in a telephone interview. Teff said the women accused all parties in the conflict of rape.
Women and girls in South Sudan are being attacked as they go about the most mundane daily activities, Teff said. “We have been told stories of women who have been assaulted when using latrines.
"Also, as is often the case in humanitarian operations, families are given food in the form of sorghum, and women end up having to take great risks to go and get that sorghum ground," she said.
"They often have to go out of a safe place to an unsafe place where there’s a grinding mill and also take risks to get money to pay for the grinding and to get firewood" so that they can cook the sorghum, Teff said.
Domestic violence, rape and child marriage are considered forms of sexual violence. All existed in South Sudan before the country plunged into violence last December. Teff said the conflict - which has still not been resolved a year later - has "very seriously exacerbated" the problem of gender-based violence.
Overcoming gender-based violence
Pamela Tuyott, a senior manager in IRC’s women’s protection and empowerment program, said South Sudan has cultural and structural problems to overcome before it can seriously take on gender-based violence.
“There is this culture of silence around even reporting violence against women," she said. "There is also a challenge in terms of services that are available all over the country."
A program the IRC started in 2012 to fight gender-based violence in South Sudan ends this year, even though violence against women and girls is nowhere near to being a thing of the past.
With that in mind, the IRC has been working with the government to launch a new program called "Respect and Respond" on Thursday.
Respect and Respond urges South Sudanese from all walks of life to speak up about gender-based violence, and to demand health services for treatment. Tuyott told the women who are victims of violence, "... it’s nothing shameful. It’s not your fault and survivors shouldn’t be blamed."
Respect and Respond will launch in Central Equatoria, Lakes, and Western and Northern Bahr el Ghazal states before before expanding to all 10 states.
Tuyott said campaign activists will work with community leaders to raise awareness to change perceptions of gender-based violence.
"We want to make sure that people begin to understand this violence, that survivors themselves begin to speak up," she said.
South Sudan musician Emmanuel Kembe has written a theme song - called Respect and Respond - to show his support for the campaign. Kembe performed the song with singer Winny Justine Cleto at the launch of the program in Juba on Thursday. You can listen to it via the link below.