Keeping 1325 Alive: Four Strategies to Reduce Sexual Violence in Conflict: South Sudan

Today’s blog post will address an article by Spangaro et al., (2015) entitled ‘Mechanisms underpinning interventions to reduce sexual violence in armed conflict: A realist-informed systematic review’ and will apply it to the local South Sudan context.

Sexual violence is used as a tactic of war in many conflict areas worldwide, by both military and rebel groups, and even within and by the humanitarian community. The direct consequence that sexual violence has on victims is catastrophic, traumatic and life-long. Many victims are unable and/or unwilling to access treatment centers, and receive psychological support due to factors such as lack of awareness of available services, social stigma surrounding sexual assault, and mistrust in existing resources. This can perpetuate the traumatizing experience resulting in the possible untreated physical trauma, STI or HIV infection, as well as the short and long term psychological effects. Preventing and protecting against sexual violence is key, however, providing survivors of sexual violence with treatment that fits within the cultural context of the community is just as crucial. There are a number of mechanisms of intervention that dominate most strategies to reduce sexual violence in conflict and to provide treatment to survivors, and this post will discuss 4 of them.

These underlying mechanisms include:

  1. There is help for the problem, which consists of spreading awareness of available resources;
  2. It’s safe to tell, which ensures strict confidentiality to minimize stigma and other social consequences;
  3. We can work together to address this problem, and understanding that
  4. We already have ways to address this problem which are generally more likely to be accepted if implemented by members within the community in comparison to western interventions.

These mechanisms are applicable within different communities around the world that experience sexual violence in conflict, and can be used as a framework to formulate possible effective solutions for prevention and treatment.

The South Sudan Example:

To provide context to this theoretical framework, I will briefly apply it to the current status of sexual violence that is ongoing in conflict areas in South Sudan since the outbreak of civil war in December 2013. With this ever-growing conflict, came the relatively common use of sexual violence as a tactic of war. This is used as a weapon on all sides, including the Government security forces and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). While it is difficult to collect statistics on victims and survivors of sexual violence, the UN released a report in May 2014, addressing sexual violence in high conflict areas. While severe under-reporting of sexual violence exists in South Sudan, they were able to gather data within a few states. In the Central Equatoria State there were 27 reports, in Jonglei State there were 11 reports, in the Upper Nile State there were 21 reports and in the Unity State there were 25 reports following the outbreak of conflict in December 2013. While intense conflict acts as a barrier to introducing new solutions to prevent sexual violence and for receiving adequate care, there are also many other social factors within South Sudan that play a role in the reporting and treatment process. Throughout many communities, the social consequences of reporting sexual assault tend to be perceived as more traumatic than the act of sexual violence itself; therefore silence tends to be the most socially acceptable means of dealing with this traumatic event. Within this social context, young women tend to be seen as powerless, and victim blaming can be rampant (Tankink, 2013). Therefore, there is a failure of the mechanisms regarding ‘it is safe to tell’ and ‘we can work together to address the problem’. While survivors of sexual violence may be aware of resources within their communities, they may fear social repercussions related to confidentiality issues and the overall perceived lack of support from community leaders (Tankink, 2013). Confidentiality plays a major role determining whether or not survivors of sexual violence in South Sudan will seek assistance. Within a qualitative study by Tankink (2013) entitled ‘The silence of South-Sudanese women: social risks in talking about experiences of sexual violence’, she found that ‘public sharing’ of experiences of sexual violence was generally not an option; however, survivors of sexual violence were much more willing to ‘privately share’ their experiences to individuals from outside their community if ensured strict confidentiality. In this context, building on interventions that promote strict confidentiality and protection from external stigma through the mechanism of ‘it is safe to tell’, and if possible if introduced incrementally, working together to build external support from the community, could be extremely beneficial.

Sexual violence in conflict is a multifaceted and complex problem which takes many forms worldwide. It is crucial for the global community to stress the unacceptability and zero tolerance for its use as a weapon of war (UNSCR 1820, 1889 and 2106). However, using legal repercussions alone to deter sexual violence is not always useful in areas that lack adequate prosecution, as legal accountability may be weak at the local or national levels. Along with advocating for improved prosecution, assessing the local context of a community affected by sexual violence is crucial when devising other interventions to prevent and reduce sexual violence in conflict, while offering effective treatment to survivors. There is no one size fits all solution and nations must recognize the specific needs of affected communities by assessing the domestic relevance of chosen interventions.

Sexual violence in conflict must come to an end, and it is the responsibility of local and international leaders to address this intolerable practice in all corners of the globe. It is important to stress that among these leaders, the participation of women in all levels of decision making is crucial for addressing sexual violence in conflict and promoting peace and conflict resolution.

The blog series, Keeping 1325 Alive, was written by WPSN-C intern Michelle Grover.

To Keep 1325 Alive, what are some solutions you use that involves women addressing sexual violence in conflict? What is working well locally and internationally? What is lacking thus far? We would love to hear from you.

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