JUBA - The head of the U.N. agency that fights for gender equality and the empowerment of women said Wednesday that women and children have borne the brunt of the conflict in South Sudan, and called for women to play a leading role at peace talks under way in Addis Ababa.
"For peace to take root in South Sudan, women and men and young people must play a full role in a national dialogue, peace negotiations, nation-building and strengthening social cohesion in the country," Phumzile Mlambo Ngcuka, the executive director of U.N. Women, told reporters in Juba, where she was wrapping up a two-day visit to South Sudan.
During her visit, Ngcuka visited a U.N. base in Juba, where thousands have sought shelter from the fighting that began in the capital in December before spreading to the rest of the country.
There, Ngcuka said, women told her "about their suffering, the violence they had endured, the children and husbands they had lost or been separated from."
"They told me about the lack of food, water and medication and the lack of safe spaces for them and their children to receive some form of education. They told me about disease and death. And they told me about their yearning for peace for South Sudan," she told reporters.
Ngcuka described what she saw in the camp as "beyond my wildest fears."
Some of the women told her they have been sexually abused, and called for their assailants to be punished.
Ngcuka cited a recent survey that found that more than 40 per cent of women in South sudan have suffered physical or sexual violence.
"Women have told me that this violence takes many forms and includes domestic violence and wife battery, abduction of women and children during cattle raids, rape and sexual assault, wife inheritance, forced and child marriages, and the practice of giving a girl child in compensation for a crime or a wrong committed by her family," Ngcuka said.
The South Sudanese army has said that around 100 soldiers have been arrested for abuses, including rape, since the conflict began.