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South Sudan: "epidemic of sexual violence" leaves thousands in mental distress - new report

Women and girls tell of gang rape, sexual slavery, genital mutilation and stigma.

Women gang-raped, sexually assaulted with sticks and mutilated with knives

“Satan went through me the day I was raped” – Nyagai, who was gang-raped by government soldiers

Survivors face life-changing physical and mental consequences and are left with no support

Thousands of South Sudanese people have been raped in ethnically-charged sexual attacks in the ongoing conflict, and are now battling mental distress and stigma with nowhere to turn for help, Amnesty International can reveal in new research published today (24 July).

Amnesty’s report, Do not remain silent”: Survivors of Sexual violence in South Sudan call for justice and reparations, reveals how government and opposition forces have committed horrific acts of sexual violence against thousands of people across the country since hostilities began in December 2013. It also documents the devastating physical and mental implications this is having on communities across the country.

Amnesty’s researchers interviewed 168 victims of sexual violence - including 16 men - across four states in South Sudan, as well as in three refugee settlements in northern Uganda. To collect this testimony, Amnesty worked with ten South Sudanese human rights defenders, who cannot be named due to fear of reprisals from the government of South Sudan. 

In some cases, the attackers killed the women after they had raped them. In one incident, the assailants mutilated a woman’s vagina with a knife after raping her because she had tried to resist. She died from her injuries four days later.

Civilian men and boys have also been attacked, and are particularly at risk of sexual violence while in custody.  Some have been raped, others castrated or had their testicles pierced with needles. In one case, four government soldiers inserted grass in a young man’s anal passage, set it on fire and watched him burn to death.

Muthoni Wanyeki, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes, said:

“This is pre-meditated sexual violence on a massive scale. Women have been gang-raped, sexually assaulted with sticks and mutilated with knives.

“These indefensible acts have left the victims with debilitating and life-changing consequences, including physical injuries and psychological distress. Many survivors have also been shunned by their husbands and in-laws and stigmatised by the wider community.

“Some of the attacks appear designed to terrorise, degrade and shame the victims, and in some cases to stop men from rival political groups from procreating.”

One survivor, Gatluok, who could not escape with others when government soldiers raided his village in Unity State in May 2015, told Amnesty:

“Because of my blindness, I couldn’t run with the young men and so I was caught. They told me to choose if I wanted to be raped or be killed. I said I didn’t want to be killed and so they decided to rape me.”

Amnesty found that perpetrators are from both sides of the conflict, pitting the government forces of President Salva Kiir, a Dinka, against opposition forces of Riek Machar, a Nuer, and their respective allied armed groups.

Amnesty is calling on the South Sudanese government to take urgent action to halt the widespread sexual violence, to make sure those responsible are held to account, and to ensure survivors receive the medical and psychological support and justice they deserve.

Unending suffering

One of the women Amnesty spoke to is now HIV positive. Others are suffering from fistula and bowel incontinence. Some men have been rendered impotent.

In addition to the long-term physical effects of sexual violence, the psychological burden borne by survivors is enormous, and can persist for years. Many victims said they were experiencing nightmares, loss of memory, lack of concentration, and had thought of revenge or suicide - all common symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Jokudu, a 19-year-old woman, was brutally raped by five government soldiers near Yei town in December 2016. She is now unable to control her urine and bleeds frequently.

Nyabake, 24, was gang-raped by government soldiers at a checkpoint in Juba in July 2016. She said she can no longer sleep for more than three hours a night because of nightmares. She said she always feels the soldiers are coming back.

Sukeji was gang-raped by three government soldiers in Kajo Keji in August 2016 in front of her two children. She said, “I do not want to remember but sometimes it just comes in my mind and I cry. Sometimes I wonder whether my children have this in their memory. When they grow up, what will they think of their mother?”

Nyagai, who was gang-raped by government soldiers in Juba in July 2016, lost her religious faith after her assault. She said she stopped going to church after she was raped and does not pray anymore. “Satan went through me the day I was raped,” she said.

Jacob, whose wife Aluel, was raped in front of him by fighters of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement – In Opposition (SPLM-IO) – in Juba in July 2016, says he has contemplated suicide.

Failure to hold perpetrators to account and support survivors

South Sudanese authorities have repeatedly failed to conduct thorough and impartial investigations into crimes of sexual violence, or to hold those responsible to account in fair trials.

Additionally, South Sudan’s weak criminal justice system and its inaccessibility create challenges for victims to report sexual violence. Survivors interviewed by Amnesty said that they felt unsafe reporting their experiences of sexual violence, especially if they were accusing a government official.

There is also a severe lack of physical and psychological support services available in South Sudan for survivors of sexual violence. Many people, particularly in rural areas, have no access to medical services, especially given the collapse of the healthcare systems in numerous communities. And specialised mental health services are almost entirely absent in the country, leaving thousands suffering the long-term effects of abuse and violence with no support.  

Muthoni Wanyeki said:

“The South Sudanese government must take deliberate measures to halt this epidemic of sexual violence, starting by sending a clear message of zero tolerance, immediately ordering an independent and effective investigation into the attacks that have taken place, and ensuring that those responsible are held to account in fair trials.

“It must also deter sexual violence, including through removing suspects from the armed forces until allegations against them are independently verified or dismissed. Victims must be provided with justice, medical care and reparations.  

“Opposition forces must prohibit sexual violence in their ranks, put in place robust mechanisms to monitor the conduct of their fighters, and cooperate with all investigations and prosecutions of their members under international law.”

Politically and ethnically targeted

Many of the victims were targeted because of their ethnicity, which is increasingly conflated with political allegiance to either the government or the opposition. 

In most of the cases Amnesty documented, Dinka men attacked Nuer women and Nuer men attacked Dinka women. But there are also cases, as in Unity State, where pro-government Nuer men have raped Nuer women they consider pro-opposition. In other cases, government forces have targeted women from non-Nuer communities. 

Nyachah, 36, who was raped by seven government soldiers in the capital Juba said: “They [government soldiers] were telling me that I should blame God for creating me a Nuer”. Nyachah’s attackers were dressed in Presidential Guard uniforms and spoke Dinka.

Nyaluit, who was raped by five government soldiers in December 2013, said: “They raped me because I am a Nuer woman... They were talking about what happened in Bor – that Dinka women and girls were raped and killed by Riek Machar’s ethnic group, the Nuer.”

James, a Dinka, was forced to watch as nine Nuer opposition fighters broke into his home and took turns gang-raping his wife, Acham, before killing her. “Don’t you know that Dinka and Nuer are fighting and that many Nuer were killed by Dinka in Juba?” the attackers told him.

S Sudan facts.jpg

* All individuals’ names have been changed to protect their privacy and safety

The interviews in this report were gathered in cities, towns and villages across four states in South Sudan - Central Equatoria, Jonglei, Upper Nile and Unity- and in three refugee settlements in northern Uganda.

South Sudan’s legislative framework fails to define or criminalise torture, crimes against humanity and genocide, and therefore sexual violence cannot be prosecuted within South Sudan as any of these crimes. The acts of sexual violence described in this report, however, do constitute crimes under South Sudan’s Penal Code. Despite this, South Sudanese authorities have repeatedly failed to conduct thorough and impartial investigations into crimes of sexual violence.

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