NAIROBI/JUBA - A first responder who helps rape survivors among displaced South Sudanese women in Juba says the number of cases she sees has skyrocketed.
Anet, who prefers to be identified by one name only, said that before South Sudan’s conflict started in December 2013, she would receive only a handful of rape cases each month among the women taking shelter at a U.N. base.
"Cases would come, but in a month, you’d find only one, two, or even none," she said. Now, the figure has risen to 30 to 40 per month, she said.
Anet’s experience reflects the crisis of sexual- and gender-based violence taking place across the country. And according to a report released Thursday in Nairobi by Legal Action Worldwide and the South Sudan Law Society, members of security or militia groups have perpetrated much of it.
“I think evidence points to its use as a way of punishing communities," said David Deng, research director of the South Sudan Law Society.
According to the report, government and rebel forces, militias aligned to both sides, and unidentified uniformed men are reported to have committed rape, gang rape, murder, abduction, sexual assault, stripping, sexual slavery, castration and forced abortion.
Men, women and children have all been victimized, particularly in Unity state, although women and girls are most at risk, especially those living in so-called persons-of-concern camps.
Credibility of statistics
Another group, the South Sudan Protection Cluster, reported that 1,300 rapes and 1,600 abductions of women and children took place between April and September 2015. But verifying this number, as well as figures released by other organizations, is problematic, Deng said.
The figures "are seemingly pulled out of thin air. There’s no way to really assess the credibility of them,” he said.
South Sudan currently lacks a formal justice system that is accessible to the wider population. Traditional justice systems may function in conflict zones, but they are ill-equipped to handle sexual violence cases, which are often perceived as communal, not individual issues. And they are unable to hold government, rebel or security forces to account, according to Antonia Mulvey, executive director of Legal Action Worldwide.
And when these entities act with impunity and are not held to account for their actions, the victims don’t receive justice, Deng said.
“There is no evidence of a single effective prosecution, and I think that in and of itself says a lot," he said.
To seek accountability from the perpetrators, the report’s authors recommend legal and institutional reforms, proper vetting of security forces and a means for the survivors to seek justice, such as through the formation of a hybrid court, capable of trying war crimes.