South Sudan: A Sense of Insecurity - Violence, Gender and Agency in South Sudan

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In South Sudan, people's sense of insecurity tells us something about the bottom-up view of the political settlement of the new nation. People feel the (new) state doesn't offer sufficient security, so they continue to use some of the tactics they employed during the civil war to protect themselves and their families. How they act upon this feeling also tells us about gender relations in the post-war context. Here is a taster of my ongoing research in South Sudan; one of the case study countries in the project Power Violence, Citizenship, and Agency.

This story is based on in-depth case study research among the Latuko of Eastern Equatoria State, in the south-east of South Sudan. In the post-civil war era and since South Sudan's Independence, the Latuko experience various forms of violence and insecurity. Land and border disputes between communities, often between different clans over their territorial boundaries, are common. Cattle raiding is common among various ethnic groups in Eastern Equatoria. Raids are usually accompanied by severe lethal violence that claims many victims. In the villages where I work, an everyday form of violence is physical fights among the men, and alcohol plays a strong role in this. Women I talked to ranked domestic violence as the most frequent form of physical violence they experience in daily life.

A sense of insecurity went beyond the violence that was actually taking place in people's home area. Feelings of insecurity were deepened by news about the Murle people who infiltrated the northern part of Eastern Equatoria and kidnapped children. News could be fragmented and rumours were enough to concern people. A sense of insecurity was also deepened by news about the Yao Yao insurgents in Jonglei state - a long distance away. The men said: 'It can be like a bush fire. Any moment it can quickly come your way.'

Tactics to keep safe

Their sense of insecurity reflected how citizens at the local level perceive South Sudan's political settlement from below. A sense of insecurity was compounded by the perception that the state was not capable to resolve those conflicts. Moreover, people felt many conflicts were caused by politicians. Thus, since Eastern Equatoria has its own politicians such conflicts might just as well happen here.

For these reasons, people felt they had to rely on their own mechanisms for protection. Tactics have their roots in customary institutions and were used during the civil war. Both men and women were always looking out for signs of 'enemies' in the area. Men discussed news about any form of insecurity, far or near, in the Amangat - the place where the council of adult men meets. They discussed they should be vigilant and always united in case they needed to face the enemy one day. They would tell the women to look out for strangers when they went to fetch water or firewood. Women are not supposed to move after 8PM. To some fathers, a sense of insecurity is a reason to keep girls at home instead of sending them to the school that is a long walk away. Protection, in practice, becomes restriction. Tactics that were used during the civil war are used today.

Women's security and strategies

Customary authority forbids women to enter the Amangat. Thus, formally they are not allowed a say on security matters. But they have their ways. They'll sing songs to call for peace or to encourage men to fight. A senior woman may call a man from the Amangat and whisper the view of the women in his ear. But they are not the ones that take the decision whether to fight or to talk. Therefore, women often use avoidance tactics to stay safe; don't walk far distances alone, avoid the 'bush' where robbers might hide.

In the context of a developing nation there is a lot of talk about how women participate at all levels of government, including on security issues. Take for instance the National Action Plan on UN Resolution 1325. Equally important for women in rural areas is how they can gain influence over those other authorities play a strong role in women's security, as long as the state is perceived to leave gaps in the protection of its people.

Read more about our programme on Power, Violence, Citizenship and Agency. The case study report on South Sudan is expected in April 2014. The report will discuss how men and women exercise agency in response to each form of insecurity, including land disputes and domestic violence. It will highlight the roles of state, customary and social leadership.

The author is a Post-doctoral researcher at the Participation, Power and Social Change team at IDS.

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