Status of women’s and girls’ rights in South Sudan
Women and girls in South Sudan face extreme challenges with limited rights to protection, participation and inclusion. As such, South Sudan is among the countries with the highest rates of Sexual and Gender Based Violence in the world. Opportunities for education and vocational training are scarce. Laws and patriarchal norms limit women’s ability to inherit land, start a business (women belong in the kitchen and at home), and lead in public affairs. And, most of the more than 4 million South Sudanese who are forcibly displaced are women and girl.
In a country where people endure extreme poverty and 70% need humanitarian assistance, women and girls bear the impact of depravation, bearing uneven responsibility as caregivers, and breadwinners during displacements. For a community that have been ravaged by conflict, submerged by floods, and battered by repeated natural and man-made disasters, cultural norms that tend to commodify the bodies of women and girls, violence against women and girls has highly been imminent due to poor social and political structures to address these issues.
Among other violations of women’s and girls’ rights, are the cases of conflict related Sexual Violence and child marriage due to cultural norms and widespread conflicts. Conflict-related sexual violence has been persistent since the 2013 political crisis, without meaningful accountability. Widespread rape is being perpetrated by all armed groups across the country, often as part of military tactics for which government and military leaders are responsible, due to the state of lawlessness that comes in any crisis setting which destabilizes systems. However, these outrageous violations of women’s right are systemically used on this scale as weapon of war. Urgent action by authorities is long overdue and South Sudanese men must stop using the female body as a territory to be owned, controlled and exploited.
Through efforts and engagements with survivors of sexual violence, survivors detailed brutal and prolonged gang rapes perpetrated against them by multiple men, often while their husband, parents or children have been forced to watch meanwhile, helpless to intervene. Women of all ages recounted being raped multiple times while other women were also being raped around them. A woman raped by six men said she was even forced to tell her assailants that the rape was good, or they threatened to rape her again. The resultant traumas ensure the complete destruction of the social fabric.
However, women in South Sudan also demonstrate extraordinary resilience. Survivor networks and referral services empower women to support each other in seeking safety and recovery from gender-based violence (GBV). The government of South Sudan has the primary obligation to end impunity for serious crimes. It has been notable that the recent government initiatives to address sexual violence in conflict, including establishing a special court and holding military justice proceedings has been helpful but this is not enough and it is only in few states in the country with the majority of the states lacking access to justice, high GBV case backlogs, lack of judges, etc. The 2018 Revitalized Peace Agreement offers a framework to address the drivers of conflict and sexual violence, if fully adhered to. But still, there are struggles with implementations of the Peace Agreement framework with regards to establishment of a hybrid court, including reforming armed forces, strengthening justice systems, utilizing national revenues to resource health services, and implementing transitional justice processes.
South Sudan has the world’s fifth-highest prevalence of child marriage, according to the U.N., which says the practice is a violation of human rights, a serious impediment to literacy and a major cause of persistent poverty. About a third of girls in the country are pregnant before turning 15, according to UNICEF.
Child marriage is one of the outstanding violations of rights due to lack of proper laws in the country. Furthermore, poverty and hunger in the aftermath of conflict, floods, low education/illiteracy, and surpassing traditional harmful practices are the driving force behind South Sudan’s child marriage rate. Many young girls who are forced into marriage are deprived of their most basic rights with the access to education among the most common. The majority of child brides drop out of school with no hope of ever returning to education.
Many South Sudanese communities see child marriage as being in the best interests of girls and their families, and an important way for families to access much-needed resources, such as cattle, money, and other gifts through the traditional practice of transferring wealth through the payment of dowries. It is also viewed as a way to ‘protect’ girls from pre-marital sex and unwanted pregnancy that undermines family honor and decreases the amount of dowry a family may receive. These mindsets and practices have limited so many girls from reaching their full potential as such, it is total violation of the rights of women and girls.
Marital rape is also not criminalized under statutory or customary laws. There is need for the government to enact a family law to regulate marriage, divorce, custody, and property inheritance outside the customary legal system.
South Sudan has recently finalized the ratification of the Maputo Protocol ending years of waiting. The Protocol focuses on gender equality and non-discrimination, articulates women’s rights to dignity and requires the country to take measures to ensure the protection of women from all forms of violence. This follows the huge step by South Sudan Minister of Gender, Child and Social Welfare, Honorable Aya Benjamin Warille, who officially deposited the Maputo Protocol to the African Union in June 2023. The Parliament of South Sudan endorsed the agreement in October 2017 but had reservations on several provisions, including those discouraging polygamy and on sexual and reproductive health, particularly the right to decide whether to have children, the number and spacing, and the rights to contraceptives and safe abortion care.
However, the strides to this success were possible because, in 2022, synergized efforts under the WCW project resulted in SIHA convening civil society organizations to create and implement advocacy and movement-building strategies to promote the ratification of the Maputo Protocol among other policy reform agenda.
In November 2022, WRAs visited South Sudan’s Vice President H.E Rebecca Nyandeng de Mabior who doubles as the Chair of Youth and Gender Cluster to advocate for the ratification of the Maputo Protocol. During the visit, the Vice President H.E. Rebecca Nyandeng de Mabior, supported the ratification of all women’s rights treaties on gender equality and women’s rights, including the Maputo Protocol.
The greatest gap in the country to gender inequality part of this comes down to a simple lack of awareness. For many South Sudanese men and women, the idea that these traditions and mindsets are harmful has never been considered.
It’s an achievement that gender equality has begun to be discussed as a priority in South Sudan. However, while action towards this is well-meant, it has, until recently, lacked focus. Short-term efforts are unsustainable; This calls for the right resources and a systematic plan for lasting change.
At the grassroots level, activities were geared towards improving key practices and promoting behavioral change by tackling the issues of inequality head-on. Women were supported through Capacity building approaches to speak and voice their concerns and propose for policy reform, while focusing on building a movement of Women’s rights with a shared agenda
What were the obstacles to South Sudan ratifying the Maputo Protocol?
Evident during the signing of the instrument by the Parliament in October 2017, the parliamentarians passed the document but had reservations on several provisions, including those discouraging polygamy and on sexual and reproductive health, particularly the right to decide whether to have children, the number and spacing, and the rights to contraceptives and safe abortion care. In March 2023, following years of advocacy by national and regional women’s rights groups, President Salva Kiir finally signed the instruments of ratification and deposited in June 2023.
With the unstable political climate, the shortfalls to the ratification of the Protocol have had grave consequences on the lives of women and girls in South Sudan. More so, the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, aggravated the exposure of women to more unsafe situations and delayed convening to lobby for the ratification of the Maputo Protocol.
In a nut shell, some of the challenges or delay with the ratification of the Maputo Protocol included the conservative governments; pluralistic legal systems; resistance from strong faith-based groups, absence of, or lack of clarity on ratification procedures because the country was all together battling conflict and peace negotiations hence, the prioritization of peace and reconciliation in country.
Key opportunities to implement the Maputo Protocol in South Sudan
Women’s rights organizations and civil society will continue to urge the government to begin fulfilling the terms of the Protocol by setting the minimum age of marriage at 18. While South Sudan’s 2011 Transitional Constitution and the 2008 Child Act prohibit child marriage, they do not set an age limit and the practice has continued persistent.
The government needs to finalize the proposed Anti-Gender-Based Violence Bill, collecting dust at the table of the Minister of Justice since 2020. The bill criminalizes harmful customary and traditional practices and proposes effective procedures for enforcement and monitoring. Authorities have disregarded the problem of sexual and gender-based violence in South Sudan, with police routinely treating domestic and intimate-partner violence as a private matter, with complaints rarely resulting in intervention or prosecution.
SOAWR and women’s rights organizations will continue to play a prominent role in the Maputo Protocol’s implementation, including by seeking the withdrawal of reservations through advocacy, shadow reports or position papers.
Author: Christin Nabbobi
Country Programme Coordinator (South Sudan)
SOAWR Member: Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa (SIHA) Network