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Aid Worker Attacks Expose Ongoing Assault of Women in South Sudan

Reports of assault and gang rape of foreign aid workers by soldiers in South Sudan’s capital have caught the world’s attention. Now Priyanka Motaparthy, emergencies researcher for Human Rights Watch, is working to make sure that outrage translates into concrete action.

Written by Hannah McNeish Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Displaced South Sudanese women leave to collect firewood and other supplies from town, under the watch of United Nations peacekeepers from Mongolia, at a makeshift camp situated in the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) base in the town of Bentiu, South Sudan, Sept. 22, 2014. AP/Matthew Abbott

South Sudan has been making the international news lately, after foreign aid workers reported being assaulted and gang-raped by soldiers, who stormed into the Terrain hotel compound where they were staying in the capital, Juba, as fighting broke out between rival armies. A South Sudanese journalist was also executed, and the foreign men were threatened or beaten.

The group called South Sudan’s United Nations Peacekeeping Mission (UNMISS), located a mile away, for help, but no U.N. soldiers came to rescue them from what was, for some women, an ordeal that lasted five hours, and for others until the next day.

Around the same time, over 200 South Sudanese women reported to UNMISS that they had been raped. The figure is thought to be a fraction of the actual number of attacks, as so few women report rape, which carries a stigma in the world’s youngest country.

Some of the women say they were attacked under the watch of peacekeepers around U.N. bases, where tens of thousands of people are hiding from troops who are targeting civilians along ethnic lines. These recent assaults are all part of a flare-up of violence stemming from a dispute between South Sudan’s leaders. The fighting has been tearing the country apart since it won independence in 2011.

Priyanka Motaparthy, an emergencies researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW) in New York, has just returned from interviewing South Sudanese and foreign women who reported being raped during the fighting in July. She tells Women & Girls Hub what the latest reports mean for a country whose leaders have so far turned a blind eye to the sexual violence happening around them.

Women & Girls Hub: There has been so much in the media about this incident in South Sudan. Is sexual violence on this scale something new to the conflict?

Priyanka Motaparthy: Sexual and gender-based violence is absolutely not new to the South Sudan conflict. During this time we’ve seen violence against women and girls, including rape, regularly committed by soldiers and others participating in the conflict. For South Sudanese women, this has become a regular part of this conflict and a regular fear for them every time fighting breaks out.

Women & Girls Hub: What do government and army officials say when you present evidence of mass rapes?

Motaparthy: The latest round of violence against women is a real example of the types of responses you see. I was told by the chief of military justice that these were isolated incidents. And I met with him on July 21, the same day that three women I later interviewed were raped outside the U.N. base in Juba, so I think that’s very telling. Once they know or receive reports that rape is happening and is being perpetrated by their soldiers, they absolutely have a duty to investigate those allegations and look for any evidence of wrongdoing among their men. They should not be waiting until the U.N. gives them evidence.

Women & Girls Hub: As soon as the rape of international aid workers came out in the media, the investigation was massively escalated by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Is it possible that this incident could be a force for change?

Motaparthy: It’s unfortunate the rape of South Sudanese women did not get the same response as this incident did, but I do think that all of the pressure and attention that has resulted has put increasing pressure on the South Sudanese government to show that they’re doing something about this, and to hold people to account for these rapes. [President] Salva Kiir made a public address stating that there was zero tolerance for sexual assault. He also said the South Sudanese government was looking into incidents of sexual violence and rape and reviewing medical reports. We hope their investigation will be as diligent as they say it will be. At least they have been forced to publicly address the issue.

Women & Girls Hub: What are your concerns about protection in South Sudan, even in the supposedly most secure places such as U.N. bases?

Motaparthy: One of the things that we’ve seen in the past, which again came to light in the most recent round of fighting in Juba, is that [U.N.] peacekeepers are not fulfilling their mandate to protect civilians. It seems that people were being threatened, were being dragged away in front of their eyes, the [U.N.] Protection of Civilians sites were breached – and yet peacekeepers were not carrying out their mandate to the fullest degree.

Women & Girls Hub: There was a recent announcement that another 4,000 UNMISS troops might be sent to South Sudan to boost a force of 12,500 military-ready personnel. Do you think that will help?

Motaparthy: I certainly don’t think 4,000 additional peacekeepers arriving on their own will change much for civilians in South Sudan. If there’s a reevaluation and improvement in the way [the peacekeepers] conduct their operations and respond to threats on civilians, then that would be positive. The other thing that Human Rights Watch has repeatedly called for over the past few years is an arms embargo on South Sudan. The repeated rounds of fighting, the utter disregard for civilian safety, has shown again and again that an arms embargo is needed to send a strong message to the South Sudanese leadership and protect civilians.

Women & Girls Hub: What do you think we can learn from this attack?

Motaparthy: The incident at the Terrain Hotel and the rape of foreigners in South Sudan has brought a lot of attention to the issue. The more people are aware of that facet of this conflict, the more accountability there is for rape and gender-based violence, which is incredibly important in the context of this conflict.

But it’s also important to understand that rape has been a constant of the conflict in South Sudan. It’s not something new, it’s something that … South Sudanese women have come to face, have come to fear, have seen their friends and neighbors and relatives be subjected to. It’s so important that people understand that women seeking shelter from this violent conflict in these U.N. bases, who needed food to feed their children and families, knew that they were risking rape by leaving camp and took whatever small measures they could to protect themselves, but weren’t able to do that.

I find it so shocking that these rapes continued to occur over at least two weeks, right in the capital of South Sudan, and no one was able to prevent that from happening. I hope, if anything, this outpouring of attention and outrage translates to a more sustained effort to find out who was responsible, and hold them to account.

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