Safety an Issue in South Sudan’s Refugee Camps

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JUBA, South Sudan — The current protracted civil war between South Sudan’s governmental forces, led by president Salva Kiir, and the rebel forces, led by ex-vice president Riek Machar, has led to the death of thousands, the displacement of roughly a million, and it has caused more than five million individuals to seek humanitarian aid.

This conflict started in 2013, only two years after the nation had finally achieved independence from South Sudan. With many of the internally displaced seeking safety in refugee camps, United Nations bases in the region are quickly becoming overwhelmed. As this overcrowding continues to be an issue, the notion of safety that these camps supposedly provide can increasingly become questioned as they become sites of gender-based violence and rape.

In the UN base in Malakal, a city in South Sudan, there are currently 17,000 refugees. And between January and June of this year, there were a reported 28 cases of sexual assault. The actual number, however, is expected to be much larger than that, as many aid workers will acknowledge that the vast majority of sexual assaults go unreported. Julie Francis, a widowed mother who currently lives in Malakal, has spoken of drunken teenagers following and harassing women at night, seeing holes cut in the tarpaulin walls of the female showers so men can look through and having to console rape victims. When describing the situation at the camp, she said, “It is too much. They attack us at the place of the toilets or at night where we collect water.”

This is a situation that is common across South Sudan’s refugee camps, as almost 100,000 people have sought shelter in 10 UN Mission South Sudan bases across the eastern half of the nation since the civil war’s start in 2013. With no official statistics currently available, humanitarian groups have no doubt that sexual and gender-based violence exists in all of these camps to varying degrees.

In response to the violence, the women of these camps are becoming frustrated, as their sole reason in coming to these areas was in search of a sanctuary, of safety. While safe in the camp from the sporadic warfare occurring outside camps confines, inside they are increasingly finding themselves targets of sexual assaults.

Nana Ndeda, the advocacy and care manager for Care International, said, “They’re getting very frustrated by the fact that UNMISS is not able to provide the kind of security that they would want.”

Strategies for curbing the prevalence of these rapes and sexual assaults in refugee camps already exist. A committee of UN agencies in conjunction with various other humanitarian groups have already created a document called the Guidelines or Gender-Based Violence Interventions In Humanitarian Settings. In its 87 pages, it provides detailed recommendations on how to make refugee camps safer places for women. Chief among its recommendations is identifying “hotspots” and putting a stable protective force there, lighting communal areas at night, creating a women’s center where women are able to go to seek help, as well as asking the local population of refugees on what counter measure they think they should take to help ameliorate this issue. The question then is: why are these strategies not being employed?

The main reasons are the severe overcrowding, the original hasty construction of many of these refugee centers, lack of proper funding and the lack of adequate amounts of security personnel.

In the early days of the civil war, UN employees hastily constructed refugee camps to deal with the rapid influx of refugees in the nation. Due to the hasty construction, many of these camps were built in a haphazard way resulting in numerous alleyways with inadequate lighting. This is because the main objective of these camps originally was simply that of providing basic shelter and amenities to those displaced; consideration of women’s safety, in particular, did not occur. While this may seem excusable, the problem is that due to space issues, many of these hastily constructed camps are still in use today.

The UN is aware of this, however, and has already begun the process to secure additional land on which to construct more camps, this time taking into account women’s safety. These efforts at new construction seem to be getting delayed, however. This is partially due to dealing with bureaucracy and partially due to the sustained conflict, which engendered all these refuges in the first place.

Despite this opposition, two new camps were still opened in the cities of Malakal and Juba in June. In these camps, women’s bathrooms are in well-lit areas and are separated from the men’s restrooms.

Despite these two new camps, overcrowding is still a pervasive issue, and it and space issues have further inhibited the creation of proper facilities that could help dealing with sexual assaults. Permanent “safe” places are hard to be established for women at these camps with, instead, counseling sessions taking place on a temporary basis in unused rooms in the camps’ health clinics.

Funding has also been an issue, with the UN agencies lacking the necessary monetary means to construct and maintain refugee centers that would help protect all of their inhabitants. However, as this issue of sexual assaults in refugee camps gains greater international awareness, it is hoped that the funds will start coming in. Already, Oxfam has begun providing 6,400 solar lamps to those in Malaka. These solar lamps will help make it safer for women to take nighttime trips to the bathrooms.

The shortage of police is also a particularly important issue that must still be addressed. Roughly 1,300 police officers have been deployed across all the UNMISS refugee camps in the nation. With only a small quantity of police officers patrolling a camp at any given time, their effect is fairly minimal at best.

Rachel Neyik, a former school teacher who now lives at the Malakal camp since February, sees the rapes as responses by war traumatized youths who drink and are seeking for some escape from the boredom that characterizes life in a refugee camp. As she says, “The traditions here don’t allow rape. It is only because of the war that it is becoming rampant.”

With the peace talks between the rebels and the government currently stalling in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, what is clear is that definitive action needs to be taken in order to combat this pervasive issue.

Interestingly enough, it seems that this definitive action may come ultimately not from the UN, but from the women of these camps themselves. Tired and frustrated with the current situation in which it seems like their safety is not being addressed, women are mobilizing community watch groups. Both the UN Development Program and the UN Police have helped provide assistance to these initiatives mainly through the provision of training. Currently, with the community watch groups only just starting their rounds at the camps, the amount to which they are impeding sexual assaults is unknown. However, with this mobilization into community watch programs, the women of South Sudan have made a clear assertion of themselves and issued a defiant statement to the world, saying that they no longer wish to be regarded as merely victims.

Albert Cavallaro

Sources: Humanitarian Info 1, Humanitarian Info 2, The Guardian, UNHCR, BBC, IRIN News
Photo: Relief Web

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