SEATTLE, Washington — Since 2013, South Sudan has been plagued by devastating civil war, with violence between government and non-government militant groups causing the deaths and displacement of millions of people across the country. Although recent developments in 2018 have put the African nation on the path towards sustainable peace, non-military violence is still a threat for many, particularly women and girls. In recent years, South Sudan’s staggering rates of violence against women have garnered international attention, with some studies reporting that over 60% of South Sudanese women have experienced some form of physical or sexual violence during their lives. Furthermore, women’s representation and awareness of issues affecting women remain largely under-addressed, leaving many without the support and resources they need. In response to this crisis, The U.S. House of Representatives proposed the Equal Rights and Access for the Women of South Sudan Act (H.R. 5941) in early 2020, with the goal of supporting women’s rights in South Sudan so that women can have an empowered role in the country’s reconstruction.
The Aftermath of War
According to UNICEF, most women and girls in South Sudan have experienced gender-based violence of some kind. Many of these cases can be attributed to the civil war during which many women were assaulted during military attacks, oftentimes based on their ethnicity. However, recent decreases in militant activity have revealed that violence against women is also a pervasive issue among civilians, with a reported 51% of women experiencing physical abuse from an intimate partner or someone they know.
Additionally, with sporadic violence between civilian groups continuing throughout the country, health services have been inadequate in providing aid for victims of sexual violence or women in general. Lack of adequate health services has subsequently resulted in one of the highest rates of maternal mortality in the world, with recent estimates reporting about 800 maternal deaths for every 100,000 live births. Additional challenges, such as one-sixth of women being literate, has made addressing these issues as part of the reconstruction process even more difficult, though women leaders continue to be a powerful voice in efforts for peace, development and reform.
Making US Relief Work for Women
In response to the continued gender-based violence in South Sudan, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee introduced the Equal Rights and Access for the Women of South Sudan Act in late February 2020. As the United States has been a strong political and economic supporter of South Sudan’s sovereignty since its independence in 2011, the bill outlines contingencies for future aid that require the inclusion of women in government as well as in organizations that deal with issues of women’s health and related concerns. Furthermore, the Equal Rights and Access for the Women of South Sudan Act stipulates that a significant portion of U.S. assistance goes directly to such organizations and promotes sustainable strategies for the social empowerment of women including education, economic access and mental health resources among others.
As much of the gender-based violence in South Sudan has been committed by military personnel, the bill also proposes new standards of conduct and training for police and military forces. In supporting women’s rights in South Sudan, these standards are to be designed to protect women in interactions with law enforcement and are to be created under the consultation of South Sudanese women’s rights organizations to ensure fair and appropriate behavior by police.
Women Leading the Way
Policies and institutions that protect women’s rights are essential as South Sudan moves towards a peaceful and sustainable future. Organizations such as the South Sudanese Network for Democracy and Elections and the South Sudan Women’s Coalition for Peace are already making strides towards women’s participation in the country’s recovery. The Equal Rights and Access for the Women of South Sudan Act is one step towards ensuring that such organizations continue to be a voice for supporting women’s rights in South Sudan, as it begins the healing process.
– Matthew Otey