Author: Holly Frew
“We stay in our tent every night because bad things happen at night here. It’s not safe,” says Josephine, who sits with her four children in a tent the size of a small closet.
Unable to leave their tents after the sun goes down even to use the bathroom for fear of being attacked or sexually assaulted, women and girls in South Sudan tell me they sometimes feel like prisoners.
Josephine squeezes her children when she recalls what it felt like to be safe, secure and hopeful for her family’s future. Before the conflict broke out in December 2013, she and her husband were raising a family in Malakal, a once bustling town in Upper Nile State of South Sudan. She made a living as a tailor, and all four of her children were in school.
The conflict changed everything. Her husband was killed by gunfire when they were fleeing. She and her children fled to the nearby UN compound to seek protection from the violence. Eight months later, they are still living in a congested UN camp along with over 17,000 other displaced people. They are protected from bullets at the camp, but not always protected from other forms of violence, like sexual and physical violence.
During the day, women sell food, snacks, tea and charcoal in order to support their family, but if they do business at night, they’re taking a huge risk. When doing business, they are often harassed by drunk men who refuse to pay and may even beat women who ask them to pay because they don’t consider women or girls their equals.
“Alcohol is a major factor in the high prevalence of sexual violence. At night when some of the men become very drunk, they will harass and many times sexually attack the women and girls,” said Sarah Joshua, CARE’s Gender Advisor in Upper Nile State of South Sudan. “Because there are limited income-generating opportunities, some women have resorted to brewing alcohol and then sending young girls out to sell it, and that’s when they are getting victimized.”
To help raise awareness and reduce instances of physical and sexual violence, Sarah mobilizes trusted women to deliver sensitive messages to people living in their tent communities, how to report cases of violence and where to seek treatment. Cases of violence reported to CARE staff include rape, assaults, murder of infants and forced marriage. One of the biggest challenges is getting women to report cases of abuse and seek treatment. People are often afraid to discuss gender-based violence. In a recent CARE report, almost half of gender-based violence survivors did not report their attack out of fear.
Breaking the silence is one of the keys to preventing gender-based violence. Josephine is one of CARE’s peer educators, which is a group of women living in the camp that helps break down these barriers and create open dialogue about how people can protect themselves and where to seek treatment if they are attacked. Peer educators working with CARE throughout South Sudan have reached more than 14,000 people with important interventions for preventing gender-based violence.
But as the conflict rages on, more must be done to protect women and children from violence. CARE urges the UN and other international humanitarian organizations to work together to minimize risks and instances of violence within affected communities, so people like Josephine feel safer.
When asked what her hope for the future was, Josephine answered, “To have a job where I can provide for my children, and to feel safe so we can return home.”
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