(CN) – For four months late last year in the so-called Unity State in South Sudan, soldiers raped women and girls more than daily, overwhelmingly in gangs. Some of the victims were children. No areas were safe. Authorities took little action.
These were the shocking conclusions of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan, whose Human Rights Division released a 22-page report on Friday.
“HRD’s investigation determined that at least 134 cases of rape or gang rape, and 41 cases of other forms of sexual and physical violence (including one case of unlawful killing, as well as flogging, beatings, sexual molestation and forced nudity), occurred between September and December 2018,” the report states. “Of these 175 cases, 111 victims were women, while 64 were girls (some of whom were as young as eight).”
Horrific as those numbers are, the United Nations believes they may barely scratch the surface.
“This number is likely under-representative of the full scale of sexual violence, given the difficulties encountered in accessing some survivors,” a footnote to the report reads.
South Sudan’s five-year civil war claimed nearly 400,000 lives before the signing of a fragile peace deal on Sept. 12.
Since that time, overall violence has ebbed but conflict-related sexual violence in northern Unity has persisted in the Unity State. In November, two months after deal was signed, Doctors Without Borders shed light on a 10-day rampage of sexual violence in which 125 women and girls had been raped, whipped and clubbed.
Going beyond cold statistics and methodology, the report quotes the testimony of an anonymous 30-year-old survivor.
“There is no alternative for us,” she is quoted as saying. “If we go by the main road, we are raped. If we go by the bush, we are raped. I was raped among others in the same area repeatedly on three different occasions. We avoided the road because we heard horrible stories that women and girls are grabbed while passing through and are raped, but the same happened to us.”
The U.N. agency has monitored the persistent problem of rape and impunity ever since violence broke out in South Sudan in December 2013.
The United Nations blames the bulk of the attacks on two militarized factions: Sudan People’s Liberation Army in Opposition, which is loyal to the Unity State’s governor Taban Deng, and the government’s South Sudan People’s Defense Forces.
Pregnant women and nursing mothers have fallen prey to the various factions.
“In one incident alone on 17 December, in Lang, five women were gang-raped,” the report states. “Four of them were pregnant at the time of the attack, including one woman who was seven months pregnant, and another nearly nine months pregnant. In an incident on 21 November near Thaliel, a woman who was two months pregnant suffered a miscarriage after being gang-raped by three men.”
The United Nations says that one of the mothers was nine months pregnant.
“The vast majority (more than 87 per cent) of rape survivors were assaulted by more than one perpetrator and were often raped repeatedly for several hours,” the report states.
Michelle Bachelet, the U.N high commissioner for human rights, called for an end to the impunity.
“The volatility of the situation in South Sudan combined with the lack of accountability for violations and abuses committed throughout Unity, likely leads armed actors to believe that they can get away with rape and other horrific forms of sexual violence,” she said.