Sudan: Southern women struggle for justice


If there is one group that faces special challenges in Southern Sudan, it is women. Principal among them is gender-based violence, which is under-reported and spreading given the long history of conflict, certain traditional practices and weak judicial systems, say specialists. Below are some key obstacles to tackling GBV in Lakes State. 

Inadequate data 

After 21 years of war, there is little accurate information on Southern Sudan. The 2008 population census gave some pointers, but data on social issues such as GBV is still unavailable. Officials at Rumbek hospital in Lakes State said the number of cases they were receiving had gone up due to the new clinic, but there was still under-reporting. 

The findings of a study by aid agencies, the UN and government, which are due to be released by the end of the year, should shed some light. 

“The study was undertaken in an attempt to respond to a knowledge gap on the manifestations of GBV by bringing together and referencing a wide range of literature [from academia to local and international organizations’ reports and surveys], conducting a systematic survey in five urban centers [Juba, Torit, Rumbek, Bor and Malakal], and carrying out individual interviews and focus group discussions with relevant stakeholders,” Mireille Girard, UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) deputy representative for Southern Sudan, told IRIN. 

Insecurity and armed violence 

Much of the region is populated by pastoralist groups, which rely on cattle for their livelihoods. Cattle are at the heart of many of the cultures and traditions of Southern Sudan’s tribes; children are named after prized cows and young herders sing with passion about their herds. The price of a bride is typically paid in cattle, and one of the reasons for cattle raiding is the need for youths to obtain cows to pay bride price. 

Photo: Peter Martell/IRIN 
According to OCHA, just over one-quarter of girls in Southern Sudan are in primary school (file photo)
“One of the key differences today, which is having a dramatic impact on public security, is that, due to the war, civilians have easy access to small arms. These are being used in cattle raids, resulting in many more deaths than could be accomplished with traditional weapons like spears,” Rick MacKinnon, head of the UN office in Lakes State, said. "Access to small arms has also resulted in a higher frequency of raids and counter-raids since small arms enable smaller numbers of people to conduct a raid.” 

Inadequate justice systems 

According to the UN Population Fund, women in Southern Sudan prefer dealing with cases of sexual and reproductive rights violations through customary law. A recent report by the US Institute of Peace and the Rift Valley Institute noted that “at the local level, the boundaries between customary chiefs’ courts and government courts — and between customary and statutory law - are blurred”. 

Observers, however, say customary laws tend to favour men and often punish women in cases of rape. Given that government institutions at local levels are still being formalized, it will take time to establish a justice system that preserves important societal traditions while upholding gender equity and women’s rights. 

Lack of education 

School attendance rates across the South are very low for both sexes. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), just over one-quarter of girls in Southern Sudan are in primary school. 

Shams Eldeen, who runs an International Refugee Committee-funded clinic at Rumbek Hospital, said low school attendance was a contributing factor to GBV. His clinic treats cases of gender-based and sexual violence as well as domestic abuse. 

In pastoralist areas such as Lakes State, girls are sent by their families to cattle camps in lieu of formal classroom education, with little adult supervision or protection from boys and men. Many of the cases treated at the clinic, said Eldeen, involved girls aged nine to 14. The worst cases included rape. 

Poor roads 

Given the poor communication and road network in Lakes State, information about available medical services has yet to spread to most rural areas. Bad roads and poverty also limit the ability of girls and women to seek treatment and medicine. 

RUMBEK, 6 October 2010 (IRIN)