A woman who was a victim of gender-based violence in South Sudan. Photo by: Anouk Delafortrie / European Union / CC BY-NC-ND

JUBA, South Sudan — The line of media outlets and human rights investigators outside a young woman’s hospital room grows longer. Each party jockeys for their turn to speak with the woman who has been raped. In less than two hours, the shy 18-year-old recounts her harrowing story at least three times, reliving the horrific day in early November when armed men attacked and raped her on her hours-long walk home to South Sudan’s village of Nhialdiu in Unity state.

Unidentified armed men raped, whipped, and clubbed more than 120 women and girls in parts of Unity state within a 10-day period at the end of November, which was first reported by Médecins Sans Frontières in December.

In the days following the announcement, aid groups, investigators, and media flocked to the town of Bentiu in an effort to understand what caused the surge in assaults. A United Nations patrol carried a convoy of people, with varying objectives, to the place where the attacks allegedly took place.

Gender-based violence organizations in South Sudan worry that this desire for the story often comes at the expense of the survivor, something that can be accentuated when groups have differing mandates.

Investigative teams are tasked with holding perpetrators accountable, journalists want to shed light on the situation and attract international attention, while aid groups want to focus on the physical and mental health of the survivor. To do this, most groups request separate interviews with survivors, asking them to recount every detail of their trauma anew each time.

It’s in the chaos of such a response that the needs of the survivor can quickly get lost, according to several gender-based violence experts. The U.N. Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan warned in a February report seen by Devex that investigations of human rights violations and international crimes including sexual violence should follow the “do no harm” principle, noting that “disorganized documentation of sexual and gender-based violence and conflict-related sexual violence is counterproductive and harmful to survivors.”

Still, several aid workers and consultants in South Sudan told Devex that a general lack of information sharing and an atmosphere of secrecy is what drives them to conduct their own research.

Ethical questions

Throughout South Sudan’s crippling five-year conflict, which has killed almost 400,000 people and displaced millions, rape has repeatedly been used as a weapon of war. The scale of attacks that took place in Bentiu was shocking, but brutal sexual violence committed with “pervasive impunity” persists in the country, according to a report last month by the U.N. Human Rights Office and the U.N. Mission in South Sudan. Between September-December last year, at least 134 women and girls were raped in northern Unity state.

The broader story about gender-based violence is at risk of being lost due to people’s need to “seek out survivors,” said Andrea Cullinan, national coordinator for South Sudan’s gender-based violence subcluster, who also works with the U.N. Population Fund.

“We’re often asked ‘bring us a survivor’ as if it’s like a witch hunt. Frankly, it’s just crazy … There are so many fascinating parts to this story that’s not about a survivor telling us how [they] were raped,” said Cullinan.

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Incidents like the ones in Bentiu should have been an opportunity to paint the picture surrounding the challenges survivors face, such as the cultural, social, and legal barriers as well as access to health care, she said.

But some investigators say they don’t feel there’s a willingness among all organizations operating in South Sudan to consider the complex context in which groups are operating — and lack of information sharing acts as a hindrance.

“I understand the focus on the ethics, but it needs to be within the context of the conflict and if we’re not flexible, then some of the information about survivors won’t get out,” a human rights investigator working in South Sudan who wasn’t authorized to speak on the record told Devex.

The main goal of being in South Sudan is to contribute toward the peace process, whether working as a humanitarian, in development, or for another institution, the investigator added. When information isn’t shared, there’s a greater chance that armed parties to the conflict won’t realize the impact being created by the fighting, which serves to reinforce harmful patterns.

Having worked in similar contexts, the investigator said the gender-based violence information-sharing environment in South Sudan pales in comparison: “There is a fear in exposing information here,” they said, attributing it to the prevalence of rape cases in the country linked to armed groups, which creates a more contentious environment.

Guarding information

UNFPA, which hosts the gender-based violence information management system, a standardized, interagency system that collects data from around the country, produces a general trends report twice a year that is shared with service providers. The report includes a profile of survivors, such as whether they’re women, men, boys or girls and the classification of the gender-based violence experienced.

But some organizations said they haven’t received the reports, while others were unaware that the information was available altogether and expressed the desire for more clarity around access to information. Devex reached out to UNFPA to see if groups that expressed unfamiliarity with the material should be receiving the reports but did not receive a response in time for publication.

“If we had had access, it would help us to understand what was going on in other states. We could compare and learn about better advocacy and service practices and see the gaps on how to reduce issues,” Clement Yope, program manager for Voice for Change, a local NGO focused on gender-based violence in the town of Yei, told Devex.

Aside from its broad trends report, UNFPA doesn’t share numbers with partners or media, and instead considers that data to be a minor detail in the larger picture — that one rape is too many: “Numbers can easily become sensational,” Cullinan said. It impedes any advocacy that had been done to empower women to speak up.

Others working in the sector, specifically investigators mandated with holding perpetrators accountable, say that increased access to information, including numbers and the location where survivors were raped, would help them better do their jobs.

When groups don't share information, it “weakens the advocacy and can delay the support that the survivor may need,” said Eugene Nindorera, director of South Sudan’s U.N. peacekeeping mission’s human rights division. Timely and accurate information is essential to engage with the government or other armed actors to ensure action, he said. Without precise information, it’s hard to involve the right people and scale up services.

Nindorera noted that it’s important to consider that distinctive mandates produce different data sets, and people need to be mindful and respectful of the data those mandates require.

Putting survivors first?

Several aid workers have argued that certain organizations take a paternalistic approach when it comes to protecting survivors, to the extent that they shield them from speaking out. At least one consultant said that what’s important for case managers is to present the situation to the survivor and ask if they want to talk, helping them to weigh the pros and cons and make an informed decision.

“This becomes particularly important in countries like South Sudan where there are power differences between a survivor and a supporter/case manager,” said Anna Stone, a gender-based violence consultant. The rights of the survivor needs to be protected just like they would in a country that has systems in place to protect them, she said.

Stigma and lack of access to resources make it challenging for survivors to come forward and opinions vary as to whether people want to tell their stories.

“Most survivors we speak with in South Sudan are keen to let the world know about their sufferings,” said Nindorera of the U.N. human rights division.

To the contrary, Cullinan said the majority of survivors her team speaks with don’t give consent.  Cullinan fears that when incidents like the one in Bentiu become so public, it scares survivors from coming forward and seeking medical care as they fear retribution.

While it’s possible for different groups to carry out distinctive mandates, it depends on how it’s managed, she said. “Where we would argue is that sometimes that balance gets out of whack and we want to make sure we put the consideration on the life-saving care … We’re in the life-saving business, it can’t get any more blunt than that,” she said.

About the author

  • Sam Mednick

    Sam Mednick is a Devex Contributing Reporter based in Burkina Faso. Over the past 15 years she has reported on conflict, post-conflict, and development stories from the Middle East, Africa, Asia, South America, and Europe. She recently spent almost three years reporting on the conflict in South Sudan as the Associated Press correspondent. Her work has also appeared in The New Humanitarian, VICE, The Guardian, Foreign Policy, and Al Jazeera, among others.