“It is like another war”: confronting gender-based violence amid COVID-19 in South Sudan

20 July 2020 “It is like another war”: confronting gender-based violence amid COVID-19 in South Sudan

Gender norms and inequalities underpin much of the conflict in South Sudan. They affect how women and men experience violence differently and contribute to gender-based violence (GBV). We spoke to Flora, of the Organisation for Nonviolence and Development (ONAD), and Rabha, of Women Development Group (WDG), about how they’re responding to the rise in cases of GBV amid the novel coronavirus (COVID-19).

“COVID-19 has become really dangerous for women,” said Flora, a community organiser for ONAD, based in South Sudan’s capital Juba. “It has closed many businesses, including tea shops, where women work. Women are more exposed to the virus because of their social responsibilities to take care of the sick and go to crowded market places to buy food for their families.”

Businesses that have been forced to close due to the virus are those that tend to involve the jobs in more precarious sectors, often taken on by women. Flora worries that because the pandemic has cut off the already limited options for women to make a living in South Sudan it has forced some into sexual exploitation. “We have cases of rape and harassment of vulnerable women who need money,” she said.

Women living in protection of civilian sites – run by the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) – where thousands of South Sudanese fled during the most extreme violence in the country, after the outbreak of civil war, are facing similar experiences. “Last week, three women who went to collect firewood in Wau were raped,” said Rabha Elis Bandas, Executive Director of WDG. Rabha also explained how even in places where there are many cases of COVID-19, and people are self-isolating, some women are being forced into prostitution and sexual exploitation in order to have some sort of income.

WDG is a women-led organisation, established to promote women’s rights and gender equality. WDG works in Northern Bahr el Ghazal, Aweil and Gok Machar, and monitor rights violations and cases of GBV against women and girls inside a camp in Wau. They also work on GBV prevention and response, provide psychosocial support to women, support the development of women’s business skills through training, and give women grants to buy resources, such as charcoal and sugar, to sell at markets. Since the outbreak of COVID-19 – and with more women out of work – WDG have stepped up their efforts to improve women’s livelihood opportunities and respond to GBV cases.

“We provided psychosocial support to the three women survivors who were raped and then we gave them grants to run businesses in their area,” said Rabha. WDG are now training women with disabilities and giving them the materials to produce protective face masks. “One of our main concerns is the inclusion of women with disabilities,” said Rabha. “We include them in our work on the prevention of COVID-19.”

Sewing machines are inadequately designed for wheelchair users. As many of the women producing the face masks use wheelchairs, WDG train them on how to make them using a needle and thread. Face masks available at markets in South Sudan are expensive, so the women sell their masks for a cheaper price – helping them to make a living, while offering affordable masks to poorer communities. “This makes sure that vulnerable groups are not left behind,” said Rabha.

Community groups – also supported by WDG – help to distribute the masks and emphasise their importance in preventing the spread of the virus. So far, the women have produced over 7,000 masks which are even being bought by the South Sudanese government. “The masks the women are producing are really good quality and people in the Ministry of Gender have even requested them,” said Rabha.

“Gender equality is the responsibility of all”

Studies indicate that 65 per cent of women and girls in South Sudan have experienced physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime. Flora believes that the focus on COVID-19 has made people forget about other issues affecting women and particularly the subsequent impacts of the pandemic. “We [recently] had a women’s march to the Ministry of Gender as there was a young [girl] who was raped - she was eight-years-old,” said Flora. “This has raised the alarm that we as women should start talking about issues like harassment and the challenges we’re facing in our communities.”

Around half of women who experience violence in South Sudan do not tell anyone or seek medical or psychological help. This is due to cultural stigma, limited access to services, and a breakdown in the rule of law meaning violence is committed with impunity.

“The Ministry of Gender have promised women that they are going to work hard to bring perpetrators before the court of law…and condemned cases of rape and harassment,” said Flora. “This is a positive response but we are still working hard with them to make sure they turn the talk into action and address the challenges women are facing.”

ONAD brings women together in women only groups to discuss the insecurities they regularly have to deal with. ONAD help to develop women’s confidence to challenge gender inequalities in their communities. “Because of the cultural beliefs we have here, it’s hard for women to stand in front of men and talk,” said Flora. “So we are trying to support women to ensure they can have a say and be part of change within society.”

Peacebuilding organisations like ONAD and WDG are doing critical work to prevent and respond to GBV, and support more positive futures for women. But with fairly limited resources, there is more that donors could be doing to support their efforts.

“We need donors to look at the assets that communities and civil society have and use them and support their livelihood opportunities”, said Rabha of WDG. “We are the ones who know what is happening and how to resolve our issues, so if we get support from donors it will improve the lives of people.”

Financial support and humanitarian assistance – particularly during this pandemic – is vital. But it is equally important for the international community to hear the voices of all women, including those affected by GBV, give them the support they need, and pressure the government to bring perpetrators of violence to justice. With women increasingly exposed to abuses during COVID-19, rape cases have spiked and Flora fears they will increase even further. “It is becoming like another war in our community,” she said.

Escalating inter-communal violence in many areas is also obstructing aid delivery and organisations’ support to women – which is crucial given the COVID-19 pandemic. “Gender equality is the responsibility of all, whether women or men,” said Rabha. “It is the responsibility of everyone to come together and that is why peacebuilding is very important in the COVID-19 era.”

Women and girls in South Sudan already face some of the highest levels of violence in the world. As many are cut off from GBV services, there is likely to be an increase in violence. It is essential to recognise and prioritise the knowledge and role of women’s organisations, and support them in what they need to provide these services, while holding the government and international organisations to account. “We need to transform this difficult situation into a peaceful situation,” said Rabha. “We need to transform this bitter lemon into juice.”


The work referred to in this piece is part of a project on peace and resilience in South Sudan, funded by the European Union.

Illustration: Adriana Bellet/Saferworld.