, 19 June, 2020 / 9:30 PM
On the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict, church leaders in South Sudan have denounced conflict-related violence in the Eastern Africa country and appealed to those responsible for such violence to return abducted women and children used as sex slaves “to their respective communities.”
“On the occasion of the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict, the Church in South Sudan through the South Sudan Council of Churches (SSCC) stands united in strongly denouncing conflict-related sexual violence,” the representatives of the various churches in the world’s youngest country have said.
In their Friday, June 19 collective statement obtained by ACI Africa, the church leaders “urge community leaders, armed youth and local militias to return abducted women and children to their respective communities without delay and refrain from using sexual violence to settle localized disputes.”
The statement was signed by Archbishop Stephen Ameyu of the Catholic Archdiocese Juba as well as leaders of South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church, the Presbyterian Church of South Sudan & Sudan, Sudan Pentecostal Church and the Africa Inland Church.
They condemn the use of sexual violence during intercommunal conflicts and emphasize the sacredness of human life.
The leaders also underscore the “inherent dignity of every human being as well as their physical and mental integrity” and urge conflicting parties in the country to commit to end sexual violence.
“We welcome commitments made by parties to the conflict in South Sudan to protect civilians, especially to prohibit their respective forces to commit or command or condone acts of sexual violence such as rape, sexual slavery and forced marriage,” the church leaders say.
According to the religious leaders, adhering to the specifications of agreements that have been signed committing to end violence will ensure that conflicting parties in the country refrain from acts of sexual and gender-based violence in line with international human rights and humanitarian law.
South Sudan has recorded an escalating number of victims of sexual violence from 2013 when President Salva Kiir fell out with Riek Machar who was then his only Vice President.
In February, the United Nations published a report indicating that girls as young as eight were among 175 cases of rape recorded between September and December 2018.
Yet it is not just South Sudan that continues to witness conflict-related sexual violence. A 2020 UN report, “Children and Armed Conflict”, which was first published on June 6 notes that some 7,747 children, some as young as six, were verified as having been recruited and used in conflict.
The global survey revealed that Africa is leading in terms of sexual violence among children, with the highest number of cases reported in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Somalia, the Central African Republic (CAR), Sudan, and South Sudan.
In the survey, the UN verified the abduction of 1,683 children, with over 95 per cent of cases perpetrated by non-State actors, mainly in Somalia, DRC and Nigeria.
“Often combined with other violations, the abduction of children, although a feature of other violations, is possibly underreported. Children were abducted for recruitment and use and sexual violence or ransom,” the report says.
“Sexual violence including rape, gang rape, sexual slavery and forced marriage, remains a tactic of war and a taboo subject, disproportionately affecting girls,” reads the report, which goes ahead to recommend adoption of strong legislation to end such practices.
In their message, the church leaders in South Sudan urge all parties to the conflict to swiftly implement their commitments to prevent and respond to sexual violence perpetrated by their personnel.
They urge all parties to the country’s protracted conflict to observe the 2017 ceasefire agreement and the 2018 peace agreement in order to build an inclusive and prosperous South Sudan.
“Note that despite formal commitments, parties to the conflict in South Sudan continue to target women, girls, men and boys with acts of sexual violence as an infamous tool to harm, humiliate, displace and stigmatize the civilian population undermining social cohesion,” the religious leaders say.
The representatives of the various churches in South Sudan have also raised concerns over increased use of sexual violence by local communities, armed youth and militias in various parts of the country including Jonglei, Warrap, Western Bahr El Ghazal and the greater Equatoria Region, to settle disputes through the abduction of women and children, forced marriages, and rape.
In their collective message, the church leaders highlight the “indelible suffering” that sexual violence can inflict on victims, their families and communities. Such suffering, they say, include chronic injuries, mental disorders, isolation, anger and loss of livelihoods.
“(We) appreciate efforts carried out by church and partners across the country during the last 12 months to eliminate stigma against victims of sexual violence and to provide them with care, protection and justice,” SSCC representatives say and appeal to religious leaders of all faiths to promote social cohesion among their followers.
They further commend survivors of conflict-driven sexual violence for their strength in speaking up against sexual violence, defying a culture of stigma and fears of retaliation.
In an array of recommendations to contain conflict-related sexual violence, the leaders remind government institutions in the country of their obligation to provide survivors with comprehensive services such as health, justice including reparations and livelihood programs.
“(SSCC) stands united in strongly denouncing conflict-related sexual violence and therefore invite non-governmental organizations, donors and other partners to continue supporting the provision of survivor-centered services aiming at alleviating the trauma and promoting social justice and economic empowerment,” the church leaders say.
ACI Africa was officially inaugurated on August 17, 2019 as a continental Catholic news agency at the service of the Church in Africa. Headquartered in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, this media apostolate will strive to facilitate the telling of Africa’s story by providing media coverage of Catholic events on the African continent, giving visibility to the activities of the Church across Africa where statistics show significant growth in numbers and the continent gradually becoming the axis of Catholicism. This is expected to contribute to an awareness of and appreciation for the significant role of the Church in Africa and over time, the realization of a realistic image of Africa that often receives negative media framing.
Father Don Bosco Onyalla
Editor-in-Chief, ACI Africa