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“This is one of the worst places in the world to be a woman”

Three years on from the signing of the peace agreement in South Sudan, the heady optimism has disappeared.

The flag of South Sudan was raised at the UN for the first time in July 2011. Photo: Getty
The flag of South Sudan was raised at the UN for the first time in July 2011. Photo: Getty

“To have your own home is a feeling of freedom”, smiled Martha, one of many hopeful refugees I met who made the journey home after South Sudan declared independence in 2011.

Ten years ago I was amongst the small, apprehensive crowd who watched the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. It was a privilege to be there. Many doubted they would see that day, let alone the historic events of 9 July 2011 when the world witnessed the birth of the world’s newest nation. I looked around the small group: everyone was silent, some people were actually holding their breath. On that momentous day all the troubles from the decades of violence that preceded it were forgotten as the people of South Sudan united in eager, hopeful anticipation.

“I will be so happy when I have my own home. When I am settled I will be able to start my life again,” Martha had said so excitedly.

Fast forward less than three years and that heady optimism has disappeared. CARE International’s Head of our South Sudan office describes a nightmarish, “soul-destroying” situation unparalleled in her 20 year career. We are witnessing a country, so recently awash with hope, plunge into a situation where nearly seven million South Sudanese are facing the awful prospect of displacement or severe hunger even to the point of starvation. Having worked directly with some of the communities affected by the crisis over many years I naturally feel pain when I see what they are struggling against now.

Since conflict broke out in December between the government and opposition, a million people have fled their homes within South Sudan, finding shelter in the bush or in the perceived safety of United Nations compounds across the country. Thousands have been killed, we have seen a wave of violent attacks, rapes and fighting that have plunged the fledgling country into chaos and led its people to the brink of a catastrophic food crisis.

And the world has just been watching, albeit aghast. As with Ethiopia and then later with Rwanda, the outside world seems to be caught in the headlights of a complex and volatile situation. This time the price of inaction could be extremely high. We know from experience that prevention costs much less than a full-blown emergency response.

Amidst the chaos, an insidious, lesser-known evil is growing: sexual violence and exploitation. Research being released by CARE ahead of William Hague and Angelina Jolie’s Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict shows that the escalation in the conflict has been accompanied by a rise in sexual violence, largely but not exclusively against women and girls, and our experience tells us this situation will worsen if the conflict continues. There is still time to prevent the worst from happening. The world must respond.

My colleague who heads up our mission in South Sudan told me how the impact of the conflict on women and girls has been particularly horrifying: women tied up, raped and then shot; women attacked in hospitals and churches where they had fled seeking safety with their families. There seems to be no safe place for a woman today in South Sudan.

Women are selling themselves for sex in exchange for access to drinking water for themselves and their families. Families are offering their young daughters as child brides in order to feed their other children. One woman we interviewed referred to another woman who had been raped as “lucky”, because it could have been worse – other women were raped and then killed.

In the face of the overwhelming need in South Sudan, the issue of sexual violence might not seem the most pressing need. However sexual violence is a symptom of a broader societal malaise that has never been properly addressed. If the violence does not stop, the repercussions of unpunished rapes and assaults will undermine and haunt the South Sudanese for years. We have seen this in other conflicts around the world.

We are responding with support to over 40 health clinics across the country, including in the areas worst affected by the fighting, providing first aid, food and water alongside maternal health services But it is a fraction of what is needed.  $1.27bn is needed now to prevent the worst, but barely more than a third of that has been raised. On top of this, we are calling for critical funding to provide support for survivors of gender-based violence.

As the world’s attention is stretched by other crises and world events, the Ending Sexual Violence in Conflict Summit is a tangible opportunity to help South Sudan’s most vulnerable in a time of extreme need. If we act now, we can prevent the very worst and signal real intent to support the people of South Sudan back on to a more hopeful path.

John Plastow is Programme Director and Acting CEO for CARE International UK. The Foreign Secretary and Angelina Jolie, Special Envoy for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, will co-chair the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict on 10-13 June 2014 at ExCel London. CARE International sits on Hague’s steering group on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict and will be hosting two events at the summit.

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