South Sudan: Recent scourge of sexual violence is not new and will continue unless there is justice for survivors

18 December 2018

By: Alicia Luedke

The irony is stark. Just as UN bodies, humanitarian agencies and civil society organizations started to “orange the world” with various activities commemorating the ‘16 Days of GBV [gender-based violence] activism’ in South Sudan, young men in both civilian clothing and military uniforms brutally attacked and raped an estimated 150 women and girls, including young children and the elderly. The attack occurred in the north of the country near Bentiu in the former Unity State as women and girls were making their way to access a food distribution.


The initial press release issued by aid agency Médecins Sans Frontieres stated that that it had provided assistance to 125 women and girls who had been raped, robbed and beaten over a ten day period between November 19-29, 2018.[1] According to the UN,[2] the number has since risen to 150. Given that the reporting rate in South Sudan is generally presumed to be quite low, this is likely just the tip of the iceberg. The UN Mission in South Sudan, or UNMISS, has sent a team[3] of investigators as part of its mandate to monitor and report on the human rights situation in the country.


But as investigators and others flock to the scene and as we slowly start to learn more about this horrific attack we have to remember that this is not an isolated incident in South Sudan. Indeed, civilian bodies have been the chief battlegrounds of the conflict since the war erupted just over five years ago on December 15th, 2013. What the recent incident shows is just how deeply rooted violence and atrocity are in South Sudan, particularly against women and girls – supplementing already existing evidence. It also demonstrates the critical importance of justice to ending cycles of sexual and gender-based violence and to truly ‘making peace count,’ the national theme for ’16 Days’ this year.


Large-scale sexual violence in South Sudan not new


Large-scale incidents of sexual violence are not new to South Sudan. In fact, in a study on violence against women and girls conducted in various parts of the country, 65% of women and girls were reported to have experienced some form of physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime, which is one of the highest rates of violence against women and girls in the world.[4] A UN survey likewise found that 70% of women living in the Protection of Civilian Sites in the capital city, Juba had been raped since the conflict started, mostly at the hands of the military and police.[5] Another 78% had been forced to watch on as someone else was subjected to sexual violence.


This year alone there have been a number of documented attacks against women and girls. In July the UN released a report detailing systematic human rights violations perpetrated by government forces and their allied militias between April and May south of Bentiu in Leer and Mayendit in the former Unity State, including the rape and gang rape of 120 women and girls.[6] Amnesty International released a report on the same offensive on Leer and Mayendit in September, noting that some of those who appear to have born responsibility for past attacks on civilians in the same area between August 2015 and January 2016 may be the same individuals suspected of bearing responsibility for crimes committed between April and May 2018, underscoring the need for accountability. [7] In October the UN released another report documenting sexual violence, including rape and sexual slavery by the armed opposition in the former Western Equatoria State starting in April this year.[8]


Last year, in February 2017 government soldiers went on a rampage outside of the capital city, Juba in Kubi village raping women and girls at gunpoint.[9] The Ceasefire and Transitional Security Arrangements Monitoring Mechanism, or CTSAMM identified 154 cases of sexual and gender-based violence in Juba between February and December 2017.[10] Following the clashes that erupted between government and armed opposition forces in the capital in July 2016 there were more than 200 alleged cases of rape.[11] Amongst those raped during the clashes included foreign aid workers when government soldiers attacked Terrain hotel complex in the most harrowing attack on aid workers since the start of the war. Between May and December 2015, humanitarian organizations estimated that 1,430 civilians had been raped and another 1,630 abducted during a military offensive on Leer, Koch and Mayendit, again in the former Unity State.[12] The list goes on.


The need to end the climate of impunity


Thus far there has been little accountability for military actors subjecting women and girls to acts of rape, gang rape, sexual slavery and other sexual and gender-based crimes. After months of delays 10 soldiers were sentenced for the rape of foreign aid workers and other crimes by a special military tribunal in Juba in September of this year. While the move to hold soldiers to account for crimes of rape was heralded as a step towards accountability in a country that had been marred by impunity for sexual violence, many are still wondering whether the trial will lead to justice for South Sudanese victims. For instance, despite promises to investigate and prosecute those responsible for the attack on Kubi village that happened outside of Juba in early 2017, it is not clear that anyone was ever been held accountable.


Unless justice is provided for survivors of horrific attacks like that which occurred in Bentiu, or the many, many other incidents of large-scale sexual violence since the start of the conflict, South Sudan’s women and girls will remain trapped in a vicious cycle of violence. Holding perpetrators to account is one of the principle ways for both ensuring redress for survivors, as well as interrupting the cyclical relationship between impunity and continued sexual and gender-based violence. As the UN Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan stated earlier this year, “[t]he grave lack of accountability for gross human rights violations…perpetrated by all parties since 2013 is the foremost factor in perpetuating the current conflict.”[13]


Since the attacks in Bentiu, the UN has called for accountability for the crimes and pointed to the crucial importance of justice for ensuring lasting peace and stability in the country.[14] The Government of South Sudan has reportedly blamed the attacks on armed youth in the area, calling on all sides to demobilize youth, but more needs to be done to both investigate and prosecute sexual violence crimes.[15]


Shortly after the horrific mass rape near Bentiu came to light at the end of November, on December 6th, a non-governmental organization, Legal Action Worldwide launched a landmark case against the Government of South Sudan for sexual violence committed against 30 South Sudanese women and girls by members of the national military.[16] The momentum needs to continue, and the government needs to show that they are serious about tackling the kinds of sexual and gender-based violence crimes that women and girls have experienced on a continuous basis throughout the course of the conflict. They need to show South Sudanese women and girls that they matter to the country’s future and commit to ‘make peace count’ for them.


Nyadil Machar, Lankien, South Sudan

Brown, Aimee. “Nyadil Machar, Lankien, South Sudan” Flikr,16715875780,Oxfam East Africa, March 13, 2015,[email protected]/16715875780.








About the Author: Alicia Luedke

Alicia Luedke is a PhD candidate at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada focusing on gender and sexual violence in situations of armed conflict, specifically in South Sudan. She also has experience working as a researcher and consultant for different national, regional and international NGOs in East Africa and the Horn. She is a member of the Missing Peace Young Scholars Network supported by Women in International Security, the Peace Research Institute of Oslo, the United States Institute of Peace and the Human Rights Center at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law. 


[1] MSF, “125 women and girls seek emergency assistance in Bentiu after horrific sexual violence.” Press Release, 30 November 2018, available at:

[2] VOA, “UN says more than 150 women, girls raped in South Sudan,” VOA News, 4 December 2018, available at:

[3] United Nations Peacekeeping, “Human rights investigators rush to South Sudan’s Bentiu following spate of rapes,” 5 December 2018, available at:

[4] WhatWorks To Prevent Violence – Violence Against Women and Girls in Conflict and Humanitarian Crises, “No safe place: A lifetime of violence for conflict-affected women and girls in South Sudan,” Summary Report 2017, available at:

[5] United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, “Statement by Yasmin Sooka, Chair of the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan at the 26th Special Session of the UN Human Rights Council, 14 December 2016, available at:

[6] UNMISS and United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, Indiscriminate Attacks Against Civilians in Southern Unity April-May 2018, available at:

[7] Amnesty International, “Anything that was breathing was killed”: War crimes in Leer and Mayendit, South Sudan, AFR 65/8801/2018, available at:

[8] UNMISS and United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, Violations and Abuses Against Civilians in Gbudue and Tambura States (Western Equatoria) April-August 2018, available at:

[9] VOA, “South Sudan Army Troops Accused of Mass Rape,” VOA News, 16 February 2017, available at:

[10] CTSAMM, “CTSAMM Report 2018/03 – SGBV in Central Equatoria State,” available at:

[11] United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, “SPLA committed widespread violations during and after July fighting in South Sudan – Zeid,” 4 August 2016, available at:

[12] Protection Cluster South Sudan, “Protection situation update: Leer County, Southern Unity (October-December 2015),” available at:

[13] “Report of the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan,” 23 February 2018, A/HRC/37/CRP.2, available at:

[14] Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, “South Sudan: UN senior officials urge government to ensure accountability for sexual violence against women and girls in Bentiu,” 3 December 2018, available at:

[15] Sam Mednick, “At the scene of South Sudan mass rape, ‘no one could hear me’,” Associated Press, 9 December 2018, available at:

[16] LAW, “First legal case lodged against South Sudanese government for gang rape and sexual slavery,” 6 December 2018, available at:


Photo credit to NZDF

by Anna Powles and Jacqui True

Anna Powles and Jacqui True analyze New Zealand’s draft National Action Plan for the Implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace, and Security. They take a deeper look at the five focus areas of the National Action Plan: (1) ensuring women’s involvement in decision-making within conflict and post-conflict situations; (2) promoting New Zealand women as mediators and negotiators in international forums; (3) increasing the number of New Zealand women deployed in police and military roles in UN-mandated peacekeeping missions; (4) ensuring that gender analysis informs NZ’s peace support responses, and development assistance to conflict-affected countries; and (5) promoting efforts to combat sexual violence, intimate partner violence and violence against women in conflict affected countries where New Zealand has a development programme or post.

New Zealand’s National Action Plan will be adopted this year and Powles and True aruge that the formal adoption should be marked by a parliamentary debate on UNSCR 1325 and women, peace and security and what it means for New Zealand in the Pacific region.

The full article was published on Incline, a New Zealand-based project that publishes original analysis and commentary on issues and trends that impact New Zealand’s international relations, and can be accessed here.

Anna Powles is a Senior Lecturer in Security Studies at Massey University and Director of Women in International Security New Zealand (WIIS). She can be emailed at [email protected]

Jacqui True is a Professor of International Relations and Politics at Monash Unversity and Co-Founder of the Women, Peace and Security Academic Collective (WPSAC) and can be emailed at [email protected]

By Carla Koppell and Allison Salyer

Syrian refugees walk along the outer perimeter of a refugee camp on the Syrian border. / Odd Andersen, AFP

The numbers are stark. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights currently estimates that some 150,000 Syrians have perished in that country’s ongoing conflict. Over 6 million Syrians have been displaced inside the country, often multiple times; and approximately 2.7 million people have fled Syria, mostly into neighboring nations.

The majority of those are women and children, who have been exposed to serious risks during their flight, in camps, and in unfamiliar countries’ cities and towns.

The crisis in Syria presents humanitarian, developmental and demographic challenges that are seldom seen at this magnitude. We recently returned from Jordan and Turkey where we came away with very profound impressions regarding the gendered lens of the conflict; the challenge of gender-based violence (GBV); and, the roles that women are playing as agents of change.

It is hard to tell with any certainty exactly how many women are suffering various forms of sexual violence in Syria. Assessments, done by local and international organizations, do identify women and children as among the most vulnerable.

Anecdotally, many displaced Syrian women and girls report having experienced violence or knowing people that have suffered attacks, in particular rape.

A women carries food commodities in the Aleppo neighborhood of Tariq al-Bab. / Odd Andersen, AFP

But in spite of this horrifying situation, we also heard several heartening stories that humble us and provide the motivation to push forward and continue to elevate the voices of women enmeshed in this conflict:

  • Stories of women negotiating local cease fires in Zabadani and of removing armed actors from schools in Aleppo;
  • Stories of women delivering life-saving medical supplies despite the grave risks to themselves and their families;
  • Stories of women in eastern Syria who worked with merchants to stabilize commodity prices so that citizens could remain in their homes;
  • And stories of women in Latakia who convinced armed groups to permit establishment of a local civil society presence focused on peace-building.

Making sure these women are heard will be key to ending the violence.

These stories show some of the ways Syrian women are leading their communities. And USAID is working to create space for other fearless women across the country as we support the establishment of democratic processes and institutions in Syria that advance freedom, dignity, and development for all of its people.

Syrian women cook outside their makeshift houses at the refugee camp of Qah along the Turkish border. / Bulent Kilic, AFP

Consistent with our commitments under the U.S. National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security (NAP) [pdf] we are seeking to increase the participation and representation of women, youth, and minorities in governing bodies, with a view to building confidence in peaceful and representative transitional political processes.

Our mission in Jordan is helping to create inclusive, effective and accountable institutions that serve all of its population. For example, one community and medical center that we visited in one of the largest and poorest urban areas in Jordan now serves a dynamic population of Jordanians, Palestinians, Iraqis and Syrians — women, men, girls and boys — in the areas of computer literacy, job training, psycho-social care and basic education for young children. As a result of the far-reaching nature of the conflict and changing demographics of the neighborhood, the community has expanded its efforts to make services available to the entirety of the population.

USAID has stepped up commitments to meet the needs of women and girls, not only through our Implementation Plan for the NAP, but also in realizing the U.S. Government Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gender Based Violence Globally [pdf]; the joint State-USAID Safe from the Start initiative; and through our shared leadership in 2014 of the Call to Action to Protect Women and Girls in Emergencies. We strive daily to live up to those commitments and eagerly look to the broader international community for collaboration.

USAID’s response in Syria and elsewhere around the world must serve, protect and empower all of those affected by crisis and conflict, and ensure their voices and priorities shape the humanitarian response and the approach to recovery and reconstruction.




This piece was originally published by USAID.