The expert leading UN efforts to stamp out sexual violence in war welcomed the release of 78 women and 50 children by an armed group in South Sudan.
They were among more than 500 women and children abducted between April and August 2018 by the pro-Riek Machar Sudan People’s Liberation Army in Opposition (SPLA-IO RM) and subjected to repeated rape, sexual slavery and forced marriage.
“This release is an encouraging and long-awaited development, in a context of prevailing insecurity and immense operational, logistical and resource constraints,” said Pramila Patten, Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, in a statement this week.
South Sudan, the world’s youngest country, is mired in instability following a political crisis which led to conflict between supporters of President Salvar Kiir and Machar, his former deputy, in December 2013.
They were expected to form a unity government last November, in line with a September 2018 peace deal, but the deadline was extended.
Patten said the release of the abducted women and children followed months of negotiation between Machar, his local commanders, her office, the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) and its Senior Woman Protection Adviser.
“When I met Machar last year, I expressed concern about the plight of these women and children, many reportedly subjected to systematic and brutal forms of conflict related sexual violence”, she said.
“As a result of our discussion, he issued a command order calling for the release of all women and children held against their will and their transfer to the UN and its civil society partners. This was in line with the Unilateral Communiqué on the Prevention of Conflict-Related Sexual Violence, signed by the SPLA-IO in 2014.”
The freed women and children were held for months in military bases in Western Equatoria.
They are currently supported by the UN and its civil society partners and have been referred for medical and psychosocial support.
Several women are pregnant and have been referred to prenatal healthcare facilities.
Her office will continue to advocate the release of other abductees in Western Equatoria.