Sexual violence: South Sudan’s communal trauma
In patriarchal South Sudan, many children are raised to believe that discrimination, beating and battery of girls and women is a natural part of everyday life – to such an extent that sexual violence is hardly talked about. Kuyang Harriet Logo has made it her life’s mission to break the silence.
South Sudan, the youngest nation on the African continent, already has plenty of scars. Some of them stem from the time before independence, some of them are more recent. And many of them might never heal. The sheer brutality, the scope and the character are hard to fathom. Part of the picture is sexual violence. During the conflicts in 2013 and 2016, it seemed to reach a whole new level. The prevalence was higher, and the victims belonging to more groups than ever before. Anyone, even children and elderly, seemed to be fair game to soldiers on a rampage.
The sheer brutality, the scope and the character are hard to fathom.
-Sexual violence is an ugly tool that dehumanizes entire communities and leaves a communal trauma, says Kuyang Harriet Logo.
As a lawyer and lecturer at the University of Juba, she feels that she has an obligation to talk about sexual violence and the suffering it causes. She has access to forums where what is still a taboo can be discussed more openly, and to arenas where she meets the people who can do something about it.
-We have a culture of imposed silence. I’m in a privileged position to contribute to bringing the silence to an end, she says.
When gender-based violence is normality
Living in a highly patriarchal society, many South Sudanese children are socialized into thinking that the discrimination, beating and battery of girls and women is the norm. Even outside the confines of conflict, sexual violence is an enormous societal problem with big consequences for girls’ and women’s mental and physical health and well-being.
Being invited to radio talk shows, giving public lectures at the university and facing perpetrators in court, Logo has learnt how to talk about one of the country’s greatest taboos in a way that makes people listen. As painful as it may be to hide your true feelings and as obvious as it may seem that sexual violence is a crime, using an accusatory tone leads nowhere in a country where the violence in some districts is so common that the women and girls who are subject to it just see it as a part of their life.
Even outside the confines of conflict, sexual violence is an enormous societal problem with big consequences for girls’ and women’s mental and physical health and well-being.
-If you use an accusatory tone, many perpetrators will feel that you target them and you end up getting nowhere. To have truly transformational discussions, you have to engage the perpetrators. Given the epidemic scope of gender-based violence in South Sudan, you also have to ask the question: Do these men even know that what they are doing is wrong?
This does not mean that the conversation should end there. Transformational discussions do not equal impunity. But awareness raising needs to be part of these discussions. The society as a whole has to address sexual violence more openly in order to bring it to an end. In her role as a lawyer, she has witnessed it far too many times: Men being brought to court, totally perplexed to hear that they have committed a crime when beating up their wives.
According to Logo, there is still a tendency to blame the victims, and the customary law defined by the same patriarchal structures that causes people to blame the victims, is not equipped for dealing with it. Currently, customary courts deal with sexual violence in a way that effectively grants impunity. In parts of the country, customary law’s default if someone is raped is to negotiate marriage. Young girls or women who are raped could end up having to marry their offender.
Currently, customary courts deal with sexual violence in a way that effectively grants impunity.
A way forward
There are no specific family laws to protect girls and women from gender-based violence in South Sudan, but the necessary groundwork is in place. In order to sentence perpetrators to jail, lawyers can build both on provisions in the constitution on the eradication of harmful practices and on international laws that have been ratified by South Sudan.
-The framework is there. It is the implementation that is missing, says Logo.
She stresses the need for continuing to take perpetrators to court, and to take more of them to court.
-If perpetrators go unpunished, they tend to do it again.
But all is not lost. There are changes for the better, and this is particularly apparent in the cities. In the cities, a larger proportion of people get information through schools and the incessant work from both civil society organisations and international NGOs promoting women’s rights. Even customary law is changing in parts of the country.
Logo is keen on using the momentum to push for a change of attitudes. She wants more people to talk openly about sexual violence, and she wants more people being held responsible for their crimes.
-Because that is what it is. A crime.
Being a women’s rights advocate and pushing for more openness about sexual violence is not without risks. Logo knows women who have raised their voices too loud. They are no longer safe in South Sudan. But there are ways, and it is not only about the tone. It is also about choosing your arenas and collaborators wisely. Some civil society organisations approach sexual violence by inviting representatives from the government to talk about it on their own terms. And some choose a wider perspective, trying what can be a more complex matter than outsiders would like to think.
She wants more people to talk openly about sexual violence, and she wants more people being held responsible for their crimes.
-We need to study sexual violence from a bigger perspective. South Sudan has been marred by conflict for so long that there has been a breakdown in the norms. Where there used to be social cohesion, there is now a total rupture. Children are raised in an atmosphere of hostility, and families are scarred by what they have been through. Could some of the perpetrators even commit sexual violence as a form of retaliation? Are they seeking revenge for what someone has done to themselves or their closest family members? Sexual violence during conflict is a complex matter, says Logo.