By Emmily Koiti
Last week’s horrific report accusing mostly uniformed men of the rape of 125 women and girls in Bentiu, a government controlled area in South Sudan, reinforces the need for the cantonment of forces to commence immediately to prevent egregious crimes of this nature in the future.
Ruth Okello, a midwife working for MSF said victims as young as ten years and others older than 65, were sexually abused in the incident. Pregnant women were also not spared in the brutal attacks. By the end of November, victims were still showing up for treatment at the MSF clinic in Bentiu.
In addition to sexual assault, survivors were also robbed of money, clothes and anything else of value in their possession, and which could support their families.
The assault on these women happened while they were trying to reach food distribution points in the area. The attackers confiscated their ration cards and destroyed them.
There is no comprehensive data on sexual assault against women in South Sudan. However, in the first half of 2018, medical and aid groups reported some 2,300-assault cases, the vast majority perpetrated against women, girls, and over 20 percent against children, a joint statement by U.N officials said.
Too often, men in uniform commit most sexual assaults on women. They often belong to one of the parties to South Sudan’s conflict.
The effects of sexual violence on women and girls are serious with many suffering post-traumatic stress disorder, loss of self-esteem and reduced quality of life. Continued sexual violence in the context of a newly signed peace deal by parties to the conflict leaves women inordinately doubtful about the prospects for peace in the country.
In order to hold soldiers in South Sudan accountable for their actions, it is important to remind ourselves of what the peace agreement—signed in September—says about controlling their movement, a critical aspect for thwarting attacks on civilians.
The Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of Conflict in South Sudan (R-ARCSS), requires parties to canton all their forces within 30 days of the peace deal’s signature to enable the registration of personnel, weapons and equipment, screening, re-organization and/or disarmament and demobilization.
If this aspect of the R-ARCSS had been implemented, the movement of uniformed forces would be controlled, preventing them from roaming around and taking advantage of women by force.
It is true that cantonment remains contentious; donors are reluctant to fund it and the agreement does not specify areas in which it should occur. Nevertheless, it is a key indicator for measuring the success or failure of the agreement. It is therefore incumbent upon the parties to unreservedly find a middle ground and expedite the cantonment of all of their forces immediately. The deadline for implementing this requirement passed last month after 45 days from the day of the signing of the R-ARCSS.
This will not only create a safe environment for women to live in but also enable the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) to provide security in civilian areas, protect women and investigate the horrendous sexual attacks by men in uniform.
It is commendable that some parties like the SPLM/A-IO of Dr Riek Machar have agreed to canton their forces in sites that are yet to be disclosed. However, other parties must follow suit without delay.
While UNMISS condemned the Bentiu sexual assault incident and announced its response to help the victims, in future, UNMISS should not wait to react after bad incidences are reported. Rather, UNMISS should prepare to anticipate such incidents and craft adequate responses should the parties to the conflict fail to canton their troops beyond the timelines specified in the agreement.
It is notable that the government and the SPLM/A-IO have promised to investigate the incident in Bentiu, a critical first step in holding perpetrators responsible and building confidence in the peace agreement. However, more than ever, this measure should be supplemented with the quick cantonment of troops even as UNMISS steps in to provide protection for women and girls.
Dr Emmily Koiti participated in the High Level Revitalization Forum (HLRF) process that culminated in the R-ARCSS, as a youth delegate. She currently sits on the Reconstituted Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission (RJMEC) that monitors implementation of the new peace agreement