Juba — Sexual and gender-based violence might not be a new phenomenon in South Sudan, but the current crisis and the near absence of protection for civilians has exacerbated it, analysts say.
"We do know that it [sexual and gender-based violence] is a major issue. Even though many victims of sexual violence do not report their ordeal because of the stigma that it carries, wherever we went we met women and girls who told us that they had been raped by either government or opposition forces," Donatella Rovera, senior crisis response adviser at Amnesty International, told IRIN.
On 8 May, Amnesty International released a report in which it documented atrocities committed against civilians, including rape and sexual violence, by the two warring parties in South Sudan's five-month old conflict.
"The current militarized environment, where armed men are ubiquitous and civilian law enforcement is virtually absent, places women and girls at a heightened risk of sexual violence. Persistent reports of sexual violence perpetrated by both government and opposition forces strongly indicate that conflict-related sexual violence is widespread," Amnesty International said in its report.
"We received testimonies from women and girls victims of sexual violence from all the main conflict-affected areas: Juba and areas in Unity, Jonglei and Upper Nile states," Amnesty International's Rovera, told IRIN.
In its report, also released on 8 May, the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) noted that the "conflict has exacerbated the vulnerability of women and children in South Sudan to sexual violence."
In the report, UNMISS said: "All parties to the conflict have committed acts of rape and other forms of sexual violence against women of different ethnic groups. Credible information suggests that sexual violence took place in connection with the occurrence of human rights and humanitarian law violations before, during, and after heavy fighting, shelling, looting, and house searches."
It added: "Women of nationalities of neighboring countries were also targeted. The forms of sexual violence used during the conflict include rape, sometimes with an object (guns or bullets), gang-rape, abduction and sexual slavery, and forced abortion. In some instances, women's bodies were mutilated and, in at least one instance, women were forced to go outside of their homes naked."
In Central Equatoria State, for instance, UNMISS reported that sexual violence increased during "the days following 15 December. At least 27 incidents were documented, of which 22 incidents were attributed to Government security forces and mainly to the SPLA [Sudan People's Liberation Army]. These include 14 incidents of rape and gang-rape, one attempted rape and four cases of sexual slavery...
"For example, in the days following 15 December, Nuer women were stopped in a street of Juba by SPLA soldiers and taken to unknown places. They were then assigned to soldiers who repeatedly raped them. In some instances, survivors were subsequently taken as 'wives' by the soldiers. On 16 December, three girls under 18 years old were gang-raped by SPLA soldiers when they broke into their house and found them alone."
Monica*, a 27-year-old mother of six, lies on a bed inside a makeshift tent in a protection of civilians camp in Tomping as she recounts how she was repeatedly raped in Gudele, a densely populated area in the capital, by suspected government troops. Just a few hours after the violence began; troops loyal to the government overran parts of Juba, shooting indiscriminately at civilians, leaving many dead and thousands more injured. Monica's 35-year-old husband was among those killed in the attacks.
"They came and kicked our door and got in and they hit us with gun butts and told us to lie down. They were asking my husband about guns but he didn't have any. They wanted to know our ethnicity too. They raped me - each of them. I don't know how many they were. They then killed my husband," Monica told IRIN.
She was five months pregnant when the rape happened. Three months later, she lost her pregnancy. Monica is still too afraid to return home despite Juba experiencing some relative peace.
"I don't want to go back now. It is scary for me what I went through. Now you can see I'm sick. I don't how to start when I go back and I'm not sure this [the rape ordeal] will not happen again," she said.
Alcohol and drug abuse
Even those sheltered in UN bases are not safe. A camp manager in Tomping anonymously told IRIN of cases where women are reportedly harassed.
"Women and girls are harassed at night. Many are even too fearful to bathe at night or go out to the toilet. Those women who are living alone are constantly harassed by young men here. It is big problem," he said.
He added that alcohol and drug abuse had made cases of sexual harassment in the camps even worse.
"The men and boys here have nothing to do and they get alcohol. When they take alcohol or abuse other drugs, they become unruly. Husbands are abusing their wives, and girls are constantly chased in the dark. You can hear noises and screams at night."
According to the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), an estimated 10,000 displaced women and girls who are currently living in areas which are inaccessible to aid organizations are at risk of sexual violence.
"There is need to put more attention on the protection of displaced populations. Unless this can be done, the number of women and girls facing sexual violence could increase considerably due to high insecurity and the loss of community protection mechanisms as a result of the conflict. We have reports of women and girls being raped when they go out to look for food or firewood," Julitta Onabanjo, UNFPA regional director, told IRIN.
Aid workers told IRIN that fear to report rape within the community, and insecurity, had made it even harder to reach or treat survivors.
"It is even harder to reach those women and girls who have been raped and are living outside the camps. But here in the camp, at least we have a few trusted community volunteers who have been able to refer cases to us and we counsel and where possible, we treat survivors," an aid worker who preferred anonymty , told IRIN from a temporary camp in Awerial County in Lakes State.
UNFPA said: "Awareness of the benefits of early reporting of rape cases is still low among community members, and often cases are reported well after the 72 hours required for administering lifesaving treatments such as antiretrovirals and emergency contraception."
Amnesty's Rovera said: "There are NGOs which are providing medical and psycho-social assistance to those survivors of sexual violence who are accessible, notably in the camps for displaced people in UN bases. However, only a very small percentage of those displaced by the conflict - less than 10 percent - are in the camps in UN bases. The majority are sheltering in remote rural areas, with little or no access to humanitarian assistance of any kind."
Over one million people have so far been displaced since the conflict began. On 5 May President Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar penned a deal to cease hostilities for at least one month to allow for the evacuation of civilians caught up in the conflict.
*Not a real name
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations. ]