Widespread sexual violence against women and girls in conflict is fuelled by systemic impunity, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNHCR) in South Sudan said.
A new Commission report, based on interviews with victims and witnesses over several years, describes a “hellish existence for women and girls”, with widespread rape perpetrated by all armed groups across the country.
The UNHCR maintains sexual violence is “instrumentalised as a reward and entitlement for youth and men participating in conflict”.
The goal is to inflict maximum disruption of community fabric, including through constant displacement, according to the report.
Rape is often used as “part of military tactics for which government and military leaders are responsible, either due to failure to prevent these acts or failure to punish those involved”.
“It is outrageous and completely unacceptable that women’s bodies are systematically used on this scale as spoils of war,” UNHCR chair Yasmin Sooka said.
Calling for urgent and demonstrable action by authorities, she said: “South Sudanese men must stop regarding the female body as ‘territory’ to be owned, controlled and exploited.”
Sexual violence survivors detailed “staggeringly brutal and prolonged gang rapes” perpetrated by multiple men, often while husbands, parents or children are forced to watch, helpless to intervene.
Women of all ages told of being raped multiple times while other women were raped around them. A woman raped by six men said she was forced to tell her assailants the rape was “good”, threatening to rape her again if she refused.
The resultant trauma “ensures the complete destruction of the social fabric”, the UNHCR said.
“Anyone reading this horrific report can only begin to imagine what life is like for the survivors. These accounts are just the tip of the iceberg. Everyone, inside and outside governments, should be thinking what they can do to prevent further acts of sexual violence and provide adequate care for survivors,” UNHCR member Andrew Clapham said.
A woman described a friend being raped by a man in a forest who said he wanted to continue “having fun” before sexually assaulting her with a stick until she bled to death.
Medical personnel report many survivors were raped multiple times.
The report details women bearing children as a result of rape and notes in many cases, survivors contracted sexually transmitted infections including HIV.
Following rape and pregnancy, women were often abandoned by husbands and families and left destitute. Victims raped while pregnant suffered miscarriages.
Husbands searching for abducted wives and daughters spend years not knowing their fates, with some learning of abductions by men from rival ethnic groups and forced to bear multiple children.
The UNHCR reported attacks as not being random opportunistic incidents usually involving armed soldiers hunting down women and girls, with rape carried out during attacks on villages, systematic and widespread.
The Commission said the failure of political elites to deal with security sector reform and provide for the basic needs of armed forces on all sides, contributes to a permissive environment with South Sudanese women regarded as currency.
With near-universal impunity for rape and sexual violence, perpetrators avoid accountability.
While welcoming the establishment of a special court and military justice proceedings, the UNHCR report said “they remain woefully inadequate given the scale and extent of crimes”.
To address the pervasive violence in conflict and other contexts, those in command and other authorities must promptly and publicly adopt a zero tolerance policy toward sexual and gender-based violence,” UNHCR member Barney Afako said.
To grasp the overall impact of conflict related sexual violence, it is necessary to understand the social and cultural context in which sexual violence occurs, under patriarchal systems based on domination and gender discrimination, the UNHCR said.
Half of South Sudanese women are married off before they reach 18 and the country has the highest maternal mortality rate in the world.
Sexual and gender-based violence is common outside conflict as well affecting women and girls across society in the world’s youngest country.