Tag: sexual violence

Women, girls at risk in South Sudan camps

The UN base in Malakal is home to 17 000 displaced civilians. (Pic: IRIN /  Jacob Zocherman)
The UN base in Malakal is home to 17 000 displaced civilians. (Pic: IRIN / Jacob Zocherman)

Julie Francis’s self-imposed curfew starts when the sun sets. The widowed mother of four has been living at the UN base outside Malakal since December, one of more than 17 000 people who have fled there to escape episodic fighting in South Sudan’s Upper Nile State capital. But the overcrowded camp is not without its own dangers, especially for women and girls.

Francis can hear drunken teenagers hound women as they make their way around the site’s darkened paths. She has seen the holes men have cut through the tarpaulin walls of the showers so they can peep and leer at women. She has comforted rape survivors.

“It is too much,” she said. “They attack us at the place of the toilets or at night where we collect water.” There were 28 reported cases of sexual assault in the Malakal camp between January and June of this year, according to an assessment released by the inter-agency Global Protection Cluster late last month. But aid workers acknowledge the vast majority of attacks probably go unreported.

So Francis has decided it is best to push a bedframe in front of the entrance to her tent as soon as it gets dark. If she or her daughters need to go to the bathroom, they just use a bag.

But she doesn’t think it is fair. “People should take this seriously,” she said. “They should be serious to help. There are still people who need to know that it is not right to rape.”

Where, she wants to know, are the floodlights that could roust deter men hiding near the latrines, or the regular UN Police (UNPOL) patrols to protect women who want to visit their friends at night or go to the bathroom? Why, she asked, does it seem like she is the only one taking steps to make sure she does not get raped?

The problem is not in Malakal alone. Since fighting broke out in South Sudan in mid-December, nearly 100 000 people have crowded into 10 UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) bases across the eastern half of the country. They have been dubbed “Protection of Civilian” or PoC, sites. Though there are no official statistics, humanitarian groups say sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) – including rape, but also beating, harassment and domestic violence – exists in varying degrees at all of the larger camps, as does a growing resentment among women and girls that more is not being done to protect them.

“Increasing frustration”

“Of course there’s increasing frustration,” said Nana Ndeda, the advocacy and policy manager for Care International. She has been talking to women living in the camps about their experiences since the conflict started. “They’re getting very frustrated by the fact that UNMISS is not able to provide the kind of security that they would want provided.”

What is most galling, she said, is that the strategies for what should be done already exist. The 87-page Guidelines for Gender-Based Violence Interventions in Humanitarian Settings, compiled by a committee of UN agencies and humanitarian groups, offers detailed recommendations, including lighting communal areas, creating safe spaces where women can confidentially seek help and consistently soliciting the input of women and girls on how to improve the situation.

But in the early days of the conflict, with unprecedented numbers of civilians seeking shelter at the UN bases and scores of humanitarian workers evacuating, UNMISS employees were scrambling just to provide basic services.

“We had many more people than we could house and we needed to find a way to still be able to operate the base, as well,” said Derk Segaar, who heads UNMISS’s protection team. In the early days of the conflict, as people flooded into bases across the country, “it was a matter of trying to get them in a sustainable space that would allow just enough space for them to be there.”

Thousands of people are still living in shelters hastily constructed in the early days of the fighting, when issues like SGBV took a backseat to rescuing as many people as possible.

Tidial Chany is a community leader elected to represent one of the original parts of the Malakal camp, known as PoC 2. He works closely with UNPOL on security concerns in his area, but said it is nearly impossible to monitor all of the boggy, unlit alleys and has ultimately concluded, “It’s no good for security within the PoC.”

Aware of the problems, UNMISS started working to secure additional land and to construct more strategically planned sites almost from the beginning of the conflict, Segaar said, but their efforts were slowed by both bureaucracy and continued fighting.

New camps finally opened in Juba and Malakal in June. Within the new spaces, attention has been paid to the guidelines: women’s latrines are stationed near well-lit arteries and are separated from the men’s, for instance. Another site is slated to open in the Jonglei State capital, Bor, later this month.

“It’s not a matter of a few weeks or a few months and people will all be happy to go home,” Segaar said. “That’s why we built these bases. We need to be able to keep people safe and healthy for potentially a much longer period of time.”

Andrew Green for IRIN

Rape: A weapon on the battlefields and in the suburbs

Women take part in a campaign at the hospital 'Heal Africa' which advocates an end to sexual violence and rape against women, and complications which arrive from this, in Goma, DRC. (Pic: AFP)
Women take part in a campaign at the hospital ‘Heal Africa’ which advocates an end to sexual violence and rape against women, and complications which arrive from this, in Goma, DRC. (Pic: AFP)

American actress Angelina Jolie and British Foreign Secretary William Hague hosted a War Zone Rape Summit in London last month. Officially named ‘the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict’, it sought to highlight and combat the use of sexual violence against women and children within war zones.

The event was the biggest of its kind and brought together thought leaders, policy makers and change makers from around the world.  The issues raised were especially relevant, given the current Boko Haram situation. Around two hundred Nigerian school girls who were abducted by the Islamist group on April 22 are yet to be found.

One of the key points of the summit was that during conflict it is not just guns causing destruction, but the penis. In times of war women are raped at an alarming rate as ‘all laws are suspended’ and anything goes.

Africa delegates featured prominently and many of the cases highlighted were from the region. African Union Commission chairperson Nkosozana Dlamini Zuma, speaking on one of the panels, stated that there must be zero tolerance of sexual assault within battle zones.

As part of its #ENDViolence campaign, Unicef has shared some statistics on sexual violence against women and children:  in the Democratic Republic of Congo an average of 36 women and children are raped every day. In Somalia, 34% of rape survivors are children under the age of 12. And in war zones these statistics are sketchy at best as hordes go unreported because the channels to report are often destroyed in conflict.

It is well documented that women in Sierra Leone and Uganda have been subjected to rape, sexual slavery, and other forms of sexual abuse as well. There is a clear mandate to speak out on this. It has reached a point where sexual assault in countries such as Liberia and Cote d’Ivoire are posing a threat to justice, with this form of violence being a ‘characterising feature of war’.

But why is the brutality of rape only highlighted during war when the act is no less brutal on a Saturday night in a peaceful suburb? Why are you an animal in the combat zone and a man asserting himself in the city?

Rape: present during war and peace
At the summit, Nobel laureate Leymah Gbowee said that ‘Sexual violence in war is directly related to sexual violence in peace’ .

The problem is as prevalent across the continent, although it doesn’t receive an equal amount of attention in all countries. Take Kenya, which has had to deal with a legacy of British troops raping women over a period of 30 years. This institutionally imposed silence was broken by Amnesty International  in 2003 when it emerged that over 650 women had been raped by British soldiers  as long ago as 1965 and as recently as 2001.

The majority of these cases were gang rapes perpetrated by men during training sessions, not during times of war.

Sexual violence as a societal weapon
Sexual violence as a weapon is not only something confined to the battlefield and understanding this could go a long way towards reconceptualising the prevalent idea of ‘victim blame’. If someone pulls a knife on you people will not automatically look at what you did to ‘deserve’ it; the same should hold true of sexual violence, and not only during war.

Most people are aware that rape is never about the sexual act (the need for sex per se), but about asserting dominance. Men have supposedly romanticised the idea of rape, equating it to notions of ‘machismo’. This is in no way to excuse rape, humans after all separate ourselves from being beasts by resisting and restraining destructive primal urges.

Within the private realm sex is seen as a weapon, a tool that speaks to a balance of power and is seen more as a power struggle between two people and not as serious attack. Often cases involving sexual assault either fall to the wayside or the perpetrators receive ridiculously inadequate punishments, such as cutting grass.

In the home there are certain power dynamics that take place in terms of sexual relations between spouses. For one, to be married to another is to essentially lose the ability to state when and where sexual relations take place. This power struggle in the home can be embodied in the phrase:  ‘There is no such thing as marital rape’. This is a view infamously held by the Chief Justice of South Africa Mogoeng Mogoeng, who came under fire for downplaying domestic violence in his judgments.

The idea of sexual assault as a weapon extends to sexuality as well.

Corrective rape in South Africa is rife. This act is based on the premise that a man can change the sexuality of a lesbian woman through the act of forcibly sleeping with her thus making her ‘see the light’. The idea that one can be changed or altered through a forced sexual act is again using sex as a weapon.

A move away from victim blame
The call for empowerment of women is tied extremely tightly to the notion that rape is not the fault of the person who is assaulted, that they need not carry that burden. Sexual assault needs to be seen in light of any form of physical assault. No one questions someone who has been shot, and one shouldn’t be questioned as to the ‘role you played’ in your rape.

Summits such as this one highlight the aggressive nature of sexual assault and show it in a new light and context: as something outside the sexual realm and akin to a stabbing or even a shooting. It highlights the violence behind the act.

The call for a global shift from that of impunity (especially in the case of those involved in sexual assault within conflict zones) speaks to the severity of the situation. Sexual assault is not just about sex, one person wanting it and one person not. It has a far more vicious element to it which is often left out of the global rhetoric on the subject.

Sexual violence is violence, not just on the battlefield. It is not asking for it in one place and a weapon of mass destruction in another. Seeing it in the context of conflict shows the severity and brutality of the situation, a lens that should be applied across all cases, not just ones in which the man doing the raping is carrying an AK-47.

Kagure Mugo is a freelance writer and co-founder and curator of holaafrica.org, a Pan-Africanist queer women’s collective which engages in activism and awareness-building around issues of African women’sidentity, experiences and sexuality. Connect with her on Twitter@tiffmugo

Kenya’s women fight for justice as rapists are sentenced to cut the grass

Funerals can be lengthy affairs in western Kenya, and Liz, a 16-year-old schoolgirl, was out late at a wake for her grandfather that had stretched into the evening. She was on her way home when she recognised some familiar and unfriendly faces in the darkness. She knew instantly that the six men in front of her meant her harm. A tall girl, she tried to run. When they caught up with her, she tried to fight. Her attackers, thought to be aged between 16 and 20, began by punching and kicking her. After she was hurt too badly to resist, they took it in turns to rape her. The problem was that the teenager would not submit quietly: she kept screaming.

When they had finished with the girl, they dragged her to a deep pit-latrine nearby and threw her inside. But despite her horrendous injuries and a fall of nearly 3.6 metres, Liz managed to find the earthen steps used by the workers who dug the latrine to get out. As she pulled her broken body up the steps, villagers who had heard her cries found her.

They quickly raised a mob to give chase. The schoolgirl knew some of the men who had raped her and started shouting their names. The villagers managed to find three of Liz’s attackers and frogmarched them to the police outpost in the village of Tingolo, in Kenya’s north-western county of Busia. The officers arrested the trio for assault and promised the girl’s angry neighbours that the men would be punished. At daybreak, the rapists were handed curved machetes, known as “slashers”, and told to cut grass in the police compound. Duly punished, they were sent home.

The morning after the attack, Liz (not her real name) was taken to a dispensary, a rudimentary pharmacy that is the closest much of rural Kenya gets to a clinic, where she was given antibiotics and paracetamol. It was only when she found that she still could not walk, a week later, that her mother sold their chickens – the family’s only source of income – and took her to a medical clinic in the nearest town. The doctor ignored the fact that she was doubly incontinent and told her she needed physiotherapy. Her condition worsened and her mother leased the family’s land for about £60 – effectively mortgaging their home – to get her to the nearest big town, Kakamega, where she was eventually diagnosed with a fistula and damage to her spinal cord.

‘One of many’
This appalling, tragic tale would never have reached the outside world had it not been for the outrage of Jared Momanyi, the director of one of a handful of Kenyan clinics that specialise in the treatment of victims of sexual violence, to which Liz was eventually referred. He called a young reporter at the Daily Nation in the capital, Nairobi, who had previously written a story about the facility in Eldoret, a town perched on the western side of Kenya’s Great Rift Valley. “It troubled me so much I needed to take it head on and tell the world,” he said. “This was an attempted murder and it’s not an isolated case; it’s one among many.”

When the Nation’s Njeri Rugene visited Liz more than three months after the 26 June gang rape, she found a broken, traumatised girl in a wheelchair. The story Rugene wrote helped raise £4,000 to pay for an operation to repair Liz’s internal injuries, the first of two procedures the girl will need to have any chance of controlling her bladder and bowels or walking again.

What has made the teenager’s trauma even worse is that her assailants are still free. “She can’t understand why people keep coming to ask questions but those men don’t get arrested,” said Rugene.

Three of those who raped Liz are pupils at schools near her own and police have had the names of all six attackers since 27 June. After stories appeared in local newspapers, officers were finally sent to arrest those still in school. Teachers at one of the schools asked if the arrests could be postponed to allow them to take part in exams. The request was granted and police claimed afterwards that they were “tricked” by the teachers, who helped the pupils go into hiding.

Mary Mahoka, a social worker with a local child protection organisation, said cases such as Liz’s were the product of entrenched chauvinism in her home area of Busia, an impoverished county close to the shore of Lake Victoria.

Polygamy was widely practised and girls were not valued by the community, she said. When she first started to work with rape victims in 1998, she found that perpetrators would pay for their crime by handing over a goat or a bag of maize to the girl’s parents.

Last week, Mahoka was helping a six-year-old girl who had been sexually assaulted by a man in his 20s. “It’s happening every day, but often it’s not reported,” she said.

Mahoka, whose organisation is partly funded by UK aid, has to disguise the nature of her group’s work, calling it “rural education and economic enhancement” so as not to provoke hostility among traditionalists in the community.

She has investigated the gang rape and says it was not a chance occurrence: “Liz had rejected advances from one of the boys, so he brought his friends to discipline her.”

‘Silent epidemic’
After reading about Liz’s ordeal, Nebila Abdulmelik, a women’s rights activist in Nairobi, launched an online petition with the international campaign group Avaaz that has attracted more than 660 000 signatures. “Letting rapists walk free after making them cut grass has to be the world’s worst punishment for rape,” she said. “There is a silent epidemic in Kenya. It’s not as loud as in Congo or South Africa, but the statistics are high.”

 People walk past a poster bearing a message against rape on a street in Nairobi on November 24 2005. (Pic: AFP)
People walk past a poster bearing a message against rape on a street in Nairobi on November 24 2005. (Pic: AFP)

As many as eight out of 10 Kenyan women have experienced physical violence and/or abuse during childhood. A report from Kenya’s national commission on human rights in 2006 found that a girl or woman is raped every 30 minutes.

Orchestrating rape is also among the charges facing Kenya’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta, who goes on trial on 12 November at the international criminal court accused of organising the violence that killed at least 1,300 people after a 2007 disputed election.

Abdulmelik notes that, under Kenya’s Sexual Offences Act, Liz’s assailants should face prison sentences of not less than 15 years. The same legislation stipulates that the expenses incurred by victims of such attacks, including surgery and counselling, should be borne by the state. “This is the government’s responsibility,” she said. “There is impunity from top to bottom, and meanwhile our president takes an entourage to the Hague at taxpayers’ expense.”

Avaaz and the African Women’s Development and Communication Network (Femnet), of which Abdulmelik is a member, plan to picket the ministry of justice and police headquarters in Nairobi on Wednesday, where volunteers will cut the grass in protest at the handling of Liz’s case.

The outcry over the fate of the 16-year-old last week prompted Kenya’s director of public prosecutions, Keriako Tobiko, to order the arrest of the six suspects and promise an inquiry into police failures. However, the investigating officer in Busia, Shadrack Bundi, said he had received no such directive and could not take any further action.

Rasna Warah, a Kenyan commentator, said women were being failed by the country’s leaders, male and female, who often left it to foreign-funded NGOs to raise awareness. “The Busia rape case is symptomatic of our society’s attitudes towards women. Violence against women has become so normalised it almost constitutes a sort of ‘femicide’.

Daniel Howden for the Guardian

Sexual violence in Egypt: ‘The target is a woman’

Randa, a 22-year-old from Cairo, has been dressing as a teenage boy throughout most of her country’s so-far disastrous two-year “transition” to democracy. The medical student thinks it is the only way to avoid sexual assault on the streets during a period of unprecedented abuse.

Randa (afraid of giving her full name) goes for the vaguely preppie American look of tracksuit bottoms, polo shirt, baseball cap and trainers when she joins a demonstration. It means she can blend in with vast numbers of men and run away if anyone sees through her disguise. They seldom do: the anonymity of the crowd combined with the chaos and confusion of disorganised rallies serves her well, and besides, most of the main protests take place after dusk. Glasses and a slight build make her look particularly unthreatening.

“As a young woman who is politically minded, I am an obvious target for the cowards, but not as a weak-looking boy,” Randa said this weekend, just after statistics in a new Human Rights Watch (HRW) report pointed to an “epidemic of sexual violence”. Attacks including particularly sadistic rapes have become commonplace in a city that during the Arab Spring was seen as the focal point of enlightenment and progress. Well over 100 women have been seriously attacked since the end of June, usually in a manner that is as arbitrary as it is cruel. One woman required surgery after a “sharp object” was forced into her.

“The only thing that the attackers are interested in is that the target is a woman,” said Randa. “It does not matter if she is young or old, or what her background might be – if you are female you are viewed as someone who is worthy of punishment – these violations transcend politics. They represent innate prejudice and hatred. The real problem is that they are getting worse, and more frequent.”

Volunteers form a safe zone between men and women to prevent sexual harassment during a protest against Mohamed Morsi in Cairo on July 3 2013. (AP)
Volunteers form a safe zone between men and women to prevent sexual harassment during a protest against Mohamed Morsi in Cairo on July 3 2013. (AP)

It would be naive to overlook the drastic increase in crime since Hosni Mubarak, the dictator, was forced out of power in February 2011. Some 51 people were murdered in Cairo on Monday morning alone, during demonstrations against the removal by military force of Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president. Yet there is something particularly disturbing about the rise in taharoch el jinssi – Arabic for sexual harassment – especially as it involves men of all ages and backgrounds. The incidents laid out by HRW are only the very worst ones. Name-calling and random groping are now the norm, to the extent that they are unlikely to be reported. The really harrowing data is offered by the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, who say that 99.3% of Egyptian women have suffered some form of sexual harassment.

Women are advised to travel in groups, to carry personal alarms, to make sure that friends and family know where they are at all times and – as in the case of Randa – even to disguise themselves.

Lara Logan, the South African CBS television reporter, brought the issue to worldwide public attention. She was subjected to an assault on 11 February 2011 – the very day that Mubarak was deposed. It lasted around 25 minutes and involved up to 300 men who had been celebrating victory in Tahrir Square itself. After her attack, Logan returned to the US and spent four days in hospital. None of her tormentors was ever brought to justice. The majority of the crimes outlined in the HRW report also remain unpunished.

Highlighting how these kind of sexual assaults are now relatively normal, survivor Hania Moheed told HRW in a videoed interview: “They made a very tight circle around me, they started moving their hands all over my body, they touched every inch of my body, they violated every inch of my body.”

The reality is that many Egyptian men blame women for bringing attacks upon themselves with their conduct in public. Ahmad Mahmoud Abdullah, a radical Islamic preacher, suggested women protesting in Tahrir Square “have no shame and want to be raped”. In February 2012, members of the Shura Council, Egypt’s upper house of Parliament, also blamed women for the assaults being carried out on them in Tahrir Square. One member, Adel Afifi, said: “Women contribute 100% to their rape because they put themselves in that position [to be raped].”

Such comments reflect an arch-conservative belief that women should stay at home with their families rather than engage in the political process – a view that was given official sanction following the election of Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, as head of state.

Some have tried to legitimise male “guardianship” by equating gender equality with anti-religious liberalism. Mubarak was a friend to the imperialist US and it was Suzanne Mubarak, the detested and now deposed first lady, who pushed for pro-women legislation, including a wife’s right to sue for divorce and a quota system favouring female election candidates. As the Muslim Brotherhood moved to reverse such measures, these policies became firmly associated with the rejected dictatorship.

Whichever government ends up administering the fledgling post-revolutionary state of Egypt over the next few months, it is unlikely that controlling the abuse of women will be a priority.

Instead vigilante groups such as Tahrir Bodyguard and Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment (OpAntiSH) offer to discourage attackers, usually through strength of numbers but if necessary by using sticks and belts. It is a rough and potentially inflammatory form of deterrence, but in a country where almost everybody is becoming a victim of some kind, it is pretty much all women can hope for.

Nabila Ramdani for the Guardian