Vulnerable to violence: empowering women in South Sudan

Mar 8, 2017

Psychosocial support in South Sudan. Credits @IOM/Mohammed 2016

It is a violation of women’s rights, a major global health problem, and is experienced by approximately one in three women worldwide. Yet the fight to end violence against women is too often overlooked and underfunded. To mark International Women’s Day, meet the woman working to raise awareness and get survivors the support they need in crisis-affected South Sudan.

Women and girls across South Sudan have long faced the threat of physical and sexual violence as well as early and forced marriage. The current conflict has further compounded the situation, making South Sudan a truly dangerous place to be a woman or a girl.

“Things are different now because we are in a crisis, things are not the same as they were,” said Viola (32).

Viola is working to raise awareness of violence against women in a country where it is estimated more than half of young women aged 15-24 years have experienced some form of gender-based violence.

“Women are harassed in many different ways,” she explained. “They may be touched, bitten, sexually abused. Most women in South Sudan have been affected.”

To help combat the rise of gender-based violence, Viola works with local communities to raise awareness, while also engaging directly with survivors to provide counselling and referrals for specialist support. Raising awareness is fundamental to her work as for many women, fear and stigma often prevents them from seeking the care they urgently need.

“People react differently. Some isolate themselves from friends and family members and need emotional support, others need referring to hospital for medical attention. Sometimes women need protection or legal support. This is where we come in. We know what support needs providing and who can provide it. But we do not force people. Through counselling we help them make their own decisions.”

In response to the alarming rates of violence against women, with reports suggesting 475,000 women and girls are at risk, UNDP is working in partnership with the Government of South Sudan, the Global Fund and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to address gender-based violence as part of mental health and psychosocial support programmes, particularly for women displaced by the three-year conflict. This is particularly important as violence can affect women’s physical, mental, sexual and reproductive health, and may increase vulnerability to HIV.

“We run support groups which include women and mothers living with HIV, and often the HIV may be the result of sexual abuse. They come together to talk about their experiences, how they felt alone in their homes before and were just waiting to die. Since joining the group, after a few months you see the women start to talk about how they feel and they can move on and join in again. Eventually they are also able to help others,” explained Viola, who works as a project assistant for the IOM mental health and psychosocial support programme.

Trainings and awareness-raising on human rights are also challenging traditionally held beliefs and enabling women to take more active roles in their communities.

“In this culture there are beliefs that say women cannot make decisions in society, but we encourage women to participate and we train women leaders. Now men are allowing women to take part in community meetings and they feel empowered. They feel good because they feel part of society.”

To celebrate this empowerment and to encourage more people to stand up to violence against women, the communities Viola works with prepared a series of dramas and musical events for International Women’s Day. The dramas focused on the role of women as peace builders in the family, and local musicians shared information about gender-based violence using song and traditional dance.

“International Women’s Day is the perfect time for us to advocate. We have a drama and group of local artists and they are performing music and traditional dances, so when people come together they get the information in different ways. Then, when they return home, every time they sing that song they will remember.”

For Viola, home is Juba, a two-hour flight away from Bentiu where she is based, meaning she is only able to visit her family, including her two young sons, every 8 weeks. But she remains positive about the work she is doing.

“I have experienced a great change in me. In counselling, you get to walk in another person’s shoes, you can see what they have experienced and you do become very affected. We cannot do everything but we all help each other. This is how I support my fellow women of South Sudan”.

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