Reports from Eastern Equatoria say that more than 300 teenage girls were either raped, forced into marriage, or used as “girl child compensation” (given to another family as compensation for a crime committed by a member of her family), during the COVID-19 lockdown in South Sudan. Only 20 of these girls have formally reported their ordeals to the Special Protection Unit of the South Sudan National Police Services (SSNPS).
“My father threatened to kill me if I refuse to marry the man, he chose for me. I was afraid that reporting a parent to the police would be of no help. So, I hid from my family at a friend’s house. Only my mother knew where I was,” says Miriam* an 18-year-old South Sudanese girl.
Miriam’s* story isn’t uncommon in the world’s newest country as it grapples to establish a durable peace, stop ongoing conflict, flooding and displacement, as well as mitigate the effects of COVID-19, in the aftermath of almost unimaginable devastation caused by civil war.
For many teenage girls in Torit, Eastern Equatoria, continuing their education after the six-month lockdown, that included school closures, is a distant dream even though the Government has recently eased restrictions on educational institutions. In a report released by the State ministry of Education, more than 300 teenage girls were either raped, forced into marriage, or used as “girl child compensation” [given to another family as compensation for a crime committed by a member of her family].
While hearsay and rumours abound about such incidents, only 20 of these girls have formally reported their ordeals to the Special Protection Unit of the South Sudan National Police Services (SSNPS).
Miriam* herself was inclined to not reach out to the police. However, when her friend and her mother informed her about the Special Protection Unit, she changed her mind. “I was afraid for my life and didn’t want further complications if I went to law enforcement. However, thanks to my friend and my mother, I learned that if I reported to the Special Protection Unit that I was forced into a marriage against my will, they will protect me. This is what gave me the confidence to come forward,” she avers.
For her part, Betty Kunyu, the official responsible for the Special Protection Unit here, agrees that official reports from victims are few and far between. “Communities do not report cases of conflict related sexual and gender-based violence to the police. So, perpetrators are not scared about committing more crimes,” she reveals adding that, “Increased school absenteeism and dropout rates among girls is obviously spurred by harmful cultural practices.”
Given the reported increase in violence against girls and young women, United Nations Police (UNPOL) officers deployed with UNMISS in Torit decided to assess the impact of the Coronavirus lockdown specifically in terms of gender-based violence. Following the evaluation, UNPOL officers embarked on a sensitization campaign for local police personnel and affected communities focused on deterring sexual violence against women and children. “Our intention is to raise awareness of support systems for women and girls that exist within the SSNPS among local communities,” said Sharmila Latta, UNMISS Police Adviser in charge of gender affairs.
Organized in the form of a 3-day workshop and combined with co-location on-site training with the Special Protection Unit as well as a 30-minute talk show on UNMISS Radio Miraya, the campaign delved into the duties and responsibilities of community members and police personnel, when it comes to community members, especially women and young girls.
During the sessions, some senior local police officers also shared the challenges they face in carrying out their duties. “We lack mobility to access crime scenes, especially at night and during this pandemic,” said Lieutenant-Colonel Adelino Oliha Olilir. Local police also requested UNMISS to conduct further capacity-building to develop investigative skills among their ranks.
“The police in any country is the starting point of the justice chain. They are here to serve and protect people. Therefore, it is essential that they develop an ongoing rapport with the communities they serve,” states Charkes Shimanya, UNPOL SGBV Adviser in Torit. “In terms of our local counterparts in the SSNPS, this sensitization drive is an effort to build bridges between them and local populations, so that conflict of any sort, including violence against women and girls, is reduced, and people start reporting such incidents to local police without fear or mistrust.”
*Names have been changed to protect the identity of survivors.