“Many cows will be paid for you,” a young woman is told, believing she is the pride of her family and society and that the family she marries into will value her as their own and the union will knit their communities together. This is supposed to be an entrenched part of our culture but instead, rape, sexual harassment and forced marriage have become the norm. As a human rights activist in South Sudan since 2005, I have heard countless stories of sexual violence and loss. I remember a 13-year-old girl called Sarah describe how a neighbour raped her. Her mother cried as she told me, “This is how it is now, and this is how it was for me too.” When Sarah’s father came home he beat her and dragged her to the neighbour’s house, demanding a settlement for the dowry. This was the start of Sarah’s marriage.
I don’t know what became of her, or how many children she had, but her story is like so many others.
A girl is monetised before marriage and treated like property after it. The notion that she is special is nothing but a lie. And now, in times of civil war, as the world’s newest nation is tearing itself apart, a woman is valuable only in so far as she can inflict pain on the perceived other.
When the South Sudanese and the government of Sudan were at war from 1983 to 2005, women were kept from the frontlines so they would bear children to replace the millions being killed. The pressure to procreate for the war effort made them even more vulnerable. They were raped and killed by their enemies and their own communities. During the relative peace from 2005 to 2013, sexual violence against women
continued. Shortly after South Sudan’s independence, when the political dispute between President Salva Kiir and his former Vice President Riek Machar erupted on December 15 2013, the violence between military factions quickly assumed ethnic overtones and spread across the country within days. Targeted killing of Nuer citizens in Juba started a wave of revenge attacks on citizens in Bor, Malakal, Bentiu and elsewhere. Now over 50,000 people have died, more than two million people have been displaced, and the threat of widespread famine is real.
Even the warring sides describe the conflict as senseless and yet seem unable – or unwilling – to stop it. And women and girls are being targeted like never before. Killing and rape is being repaid with more killing and rape, sparing neither young girls nor old women.