This case note is a part of our series of case notes that document the occurrence of sexual violence in violent conflict. The case note contains explicit mentions of different forms of sexual assault. Reader discretion is advised.
Background of the Conflict
The South Sudanese Civil war is a multi-sided civil war in South Sudan, largely waged between the government and opposition forces. The government forces were mainly from the Dinka group, and his former deputy Riek Machar and the opposition, who were mainly from the Nuer group. The conflict began in December 2013, and ended in February 2020. In December 2013, President Kiir accused Machar, and a group of others of attempting a coup d’etat (Koos and Gutschke 2014). Denying the allegations, Machar fled in order to lead the opposition, namely the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-In Opposition. The clashes between the SPLM and the SPLM-IO paved the way for civil war. Troops from Uganda were deployed to fight alongside the South Sudan government (BBC 2016a). In January 2014, the first ceasefire agreement was reached, but fighting continued.
Several ceasefire agreements followed. The Compromise Peace Agreement was signed in August 2015, and Machar returned to Juba in 2016, when he was appointed vice president (BBC 2016b). However, fighting broke out again in Juba. The SPLM-IO fled to the surroundings and to the Equatoria region, which had been peaceful until then. Machar was replaced, and the opposition became divided with rebel infighting emerging. In February 2020, Kiir and Machar struck a unity deal and formed a coalition government (BBC 2020). However, fighting continues, and in 2021, South Sudan faced one of the world’s worst hunger crises (CFR 2022). Renewed violence in the region have revived memories of a return to conflict (Al Araby 2022).
Prevalence of Sexual Violence
Incidents of sexual violence rose by 60% in 2016, especially in Mundri, Armadi State, in Equatoria, which was declared the epicenter of the problem (Fox News 2017). According to the UN, 70% of the women who were taking shelter in camps had been raped and faced sexual violence since the inception of the conflict, and that most of the rapists were police and soldiers (UN 2016). As many as 80% had witnessed someone else facing sexual assault (UN 2016).
Young men and militias recruited by the SPLA were reported to have been given guns in exchange for the blanket freedom to loot and rape the women they captured (McNeish 2015). Rape was common among women, children, and men, although very few men opened up to articulate what they had faced (Martell 2019). Women were subjected to beatings and sexual assault, and then compelled them to jump in the fire. The UNMISS Human Rights Officers had interviewed 115 victims and eyewitnesses in Unity State, where South Sudanese forces were involved in the fighting against opposition fighters (Al Jazeera 2015). Hundreds of thousands of women and girls as young as 12 years of age were held in rape camps across Unity state (McNeish 2015). Several instances of abduction accompanied the rape cases.
Strategic Use of Sexual Violence
Sexual violence was an integral and central part of war strategies on both sides, and was used as a means to perpetrate ethnic cleansing (Martell 2019). The fact of the abductees tended to depend on their ethnic affiliation – which means that the women were targeted. A UNOHCHR Report from 2022 reported that women and girls of the same ethnic origin as their captors were treated differently from women and girls of other ethnic groups. Nuer women were largely targeted by Dinka soldiers and forces (UNOHCHR 2022).
and to carry out humiliation and revenge (Martell 2019). South Sudanese women and foreign aid workers were equally targeted, the latter especially for punishment for the foreign criticism of Kiir (Martell 2019).
Targeted sexual violence was carried out by government-allied forces recruited by the leaders of the country to help take back territory from rebel control during brutal offensives (Human Rights Watch 2015). Women and girls were systematically targeted, often while searching for food, travelling to a farm or garden, collecting charcoal or firewood, or while collecting their monthly rations (UNOHCHR 2022).
Al Jazeera (2015) UN: South Sudan army raped girls and burned them alive https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2015/6/30/un-south-sudan-army-raped-girls-and-burned-them-alive
Koos, Carlo; Gutschke, Thea (2014). "South Sudan's Newest War: When Two Old Men Divide a Nation". GIGA Focus International Edition (2).
BBC (2016a) "Yoweri Museveni: Uganda troops fighting South Sudan rebels". BBC News. 16 January 2014. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-25759650
BBC (2016b) "South Sudan rebel chief Riek Machar sworn in as vice-president". bbcnews.com. 26 April 2016. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-36140423
Council for Foreign Relations (CFR) (2022) Civil War in South Sudan https://www.cfr.org/global-conflict-tracker/conflict/civil-war-south-sudan
Al Araby (2022) Sexual violence rife in South Sudan as 'terrified' residents stuck in war: UN https://english.alaraby.co.uk/news/sexual-violence-rife-conflict-ridden-south-sudan-un
Fox News (2017) "Rape reaches 'epic proportions' in South Sudan's civil war". Fox News. 25 March 2017. http://www.foxnews.com/world/2017/03/25/rape-reaches-epic-proportions-in-south-sudan-civil-war.html
United Nations (2016) "South Sudan emergency session". United Nations. 14 December 2016. http://www.unmultimedia.org/tv/unifeed/asset/1796/1796878/
McNeish, Hannah (2015) "South Sudan: Women and girls raped as 'wages' for government-allied fighters". The Guardian. 28 September 2015. https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2015/sep/28/south-sudan-women-girls-raped-as-wages-for-government-allied-fighters
Martell, Peter (2019). First Raise a Flag: How South Sudan Won the Longest War But Lost the Peace. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Human Rights Watch (2015) “They Burned it All” Destruction of Villages, Killings, and Sexual Violence in Unity State South Sudan https://www.hrw.org/report/2015/07/22/they-burned-it-all/destruction-villages-killings-and-sexual-violence-unity-state
UNOHCHR (2022) Conflict-related sexual violence against women and girls in South Sudan Conference room paper of the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan https://www.ohchr.org/sites/default/files/2022-03/A_HRC_49_CRP_4.pdf