MUNDRI, South Sudan – “He said, ‘If you cry, I’ll kill you,’” Agnes says. “He clasped my throat so I wouldn’t scream, threw me to the ground and raped me.”
The shy, anxious 18-year-old lowers her eyes and touches her throat. She’s barely said a word in two months.
On New Year’s Day this year, Agnes (who asked that only her first name be published) was walking through her hometown of Mundri, returning from a celebration with friends, when her neighbor attacked and raped her. When he was finished, he left her lying naked in the bush, just blocks from her house.
“I didn’t speak for a month,” says Agnes, her voice straining. Her attacker punctured her vocal cords – she can still speak, but barely.
She says life is harder now; she’s afraid to go out and meet friends. The man who raped her lives right behind her house and has yet to be charged. She sees him every day.
In the small South Sudanese town of Mundri, stories like Agnes’ are commonplace.
Mundri was once known as the country’s breadbasket and a pocket of peace, thanks to its lush landscape and its population’s strong work ethic. Now the town has a reputation as the country’s epicenter of rape. Since civil war broke out in South Sudan in 2013, the town has been hit with repeated bouts of fighting. Most people have fled to the bush out of fear for their lives, leaving much of the town empty.
Although Mundri is now occupied by government soldiers, many of the surrounding areas are under control of the opposition. And the fighting has led to an uptick in violence, aid groups say. Reports of targeted killings and looting by government soldiers are routine, while rape is an incessant weapon of war, met with impunity.
At the latest in a series of regular bi-monthly meetings to discuss gender-based violence, aid organizations in Mundri came together to provide each other with pertinent safety and security updates, while also trying to improve the inter-agency flow of information. Humanitarians at the meeting said Mundri is one of the worst places in the country to be a woman.
“The impunity makes me feel like there’s no law and no implementation of legality in the country,” said James Labadia, founder of the Mundri Active Youth Association (MAYA), a local NGO focused on women’s empowerment.
According to a recent inter-agency assessment by local NGOs, there were 29 cases of reported rape in Mundri between August and October 2016. Rights groups agree that the real number is most likely double that, as many incidents go unreported. As a comparison, Labadia says that before August 2016, he and his team of psychosocial workers in Mundri would hear about fewer than two rape cases a month, on average.
MAYA is determined to turn back the tide of sexual abuse against Mundri’s women. As part of that attempt, in January this year the organization partnered with the Women’s Empowerment Group, a newly formed team of 30 outspoken women who have decided to reclaim their town – and their lives – from violence.
Providing support, protection and job opportunities for women who have been abused, the members of the Women’s Empowerment Group have become the backbone and heart of Mundri’s community, as well as the town’s newest entrepreneurs.
“We want to make money so that we can pay for our children’s school fees and uniforms as well as healthcare and food,” says Ana Henry, the group’s secretary. “We can’t rely on the government anymore.”
Since February, with MAYA’s logistical support in providing materials, the Women’s Empowerment Group has been in the business of soap making. Using local resources, such as oil and other ingredients, the women have produced 120 bars of soap to date, and sold around 40, bringing in 3,000 South Sudanese pounds (approx. $25).
“Our soap is the best,” says Henry, smiling. She says the plan is to grow the business to include bread and cake making. Ultimately the group wants to have a little shop in the center of the city where people can come and buy their goods.
“It’s challenging as we don’t have all the materials,” says Henry. “But we’re trying.”
In addition to its business ventures, the group also provides counseling and support for women and families experiencing hardship. As an example of the everyday difficulties that families in Mundri are facing, Henry points to the seemingly simple errand of collecting firewood. “Women are now sent to get the firewood,” she says. “They’ll get raped. But if their husbands go, they’ll get killed. So between rape and murder, which one is better?”
The group mainly serves to provide a safe space for people to share their grievances, worries and devastations. The women facilitate conversations between family members, as well as between neighbors, and also explain to other women that they have the right to speak up for what they want. “We have to show people we’re here in Mundri, even in difficult times,” Henry says.
In March this year, the Women’s Empowerment Group did that loudly and proudly as they celebrated International Women’s Day, the first time in three years that the town has done so. The group members chanted as they paraded down the city’s main strip, reminding the community that women still have a voice. “Enough is enough,” said Mili Gabriel, the group’s leader. “Mundri used to be a great place. The women of Mundri need peace.”