By MATTHEW HERSKOWITZ July 19, 2016
After a young girl watched her parents shot to death by rebel soldiers in her village, she doesn’t think life can get any worse. Soon after, she is sexually assaulted by multiple rebel soldiers until she loses her ability to walk and her desire to speak. She attempts suicide, but fails.
Her name is Kanyere Neema, and she is a South Sudanese refugee currently in treatment at the Goma hospital in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In South Sudan, young girls and women are treated as “trophies” of war by radical rebel groups, mere objects for sex and trafficking. Kanyere is one of their youngest victims. She is part of the Nuer tribe, the second largest ethnic sect in South Sudan. The Dinka tribe, the largest, has been in a vicious and unrelenting power struggle with the Nuer tribe since 2011, when South Sudan gained its independence from Sudan and became the world’s newest country. The UN reports that millions have been displaced by the violence, and Al Jazeera furthers that “the number of refugees in neighboring countries is now 835,000” and that the number is heading for “1 million.”
In the conflict, the vice-president Riek Machar has been trying to unseat President Salva Kiir. The two sides both expressed a willingness to cease fire, and on July 14th it was implemented. The ceasefire is holding shakily, but there is no guarantee that the violence will abate. As long as South Sudan remains volatile and violent, girls and women like Kanyere have an uncertain future in South Sudan.
Unfortunately, sexual assault and coercion are used as weapons of war in this conflict. In April, the Human Rights Watch documented scores of instances of sexual violence among government forces operating in Unity state of the country, from gang rapes to torture. The UN has a peacekeeping force in South Sudan but their numbers are too small to have a serious impact, as women and girls are subject to sexual assault all around the country.
Sexual assault has a horrific impact on young girls. The International Committee of the Red Cross reports that the effects of rape and other forms of sexual violence range from unwanted pregnancies to exposure to HIV, from physical pain to psychological scarring, from the risk of social isolation to a lower likelihood of marriage, and perhaps worst of all, forced marriage to the perpetrator. Age and health conditions seem to not be a factor, with the youngest victims reported to be as young as four years of age.
Because of the social stigma of rape on the victim, many are afraid to report it and thus live with the burden alone. Aurore Brossault, head of mental health and psycho-social support for the Red Cross in South Sudan explains,
“Sexual violence shatters communities and rips family bonds apart in provoking deep shame for the victim as well as devastating levels of psychological torment. How can mother and child keep the same relationship if the child had been forced to witness the mother’s rape? It is unimaginable!”
Along with the irreversible psychological trauma it causes, the literal scars of sexual assault require almost immediate medical attention. The scariest part of this is that for all the mass sexual violence occurring in South Sudan, surgeons who are vital in aiding assault victims are way too few and far between.
It’s crucial that we open our eyes to the second largest refugee crisis occurring right now, second only to the crisis mainly in Iraq in Syria. Our blindness to such a calamity due to a lack of coverage by popular Western media is outrageous. Although mass sexual violence in war is as old as war itself, the reports of what’s happening to young girls and even infants are horrendous and unlike anything I’ve ever read in to. The prohibition of rape is the oldest of the rules of war, clearly banned in all types of conflicts by the Geneva Conventions. Mass sexual violence must be rooted out internationally in every form, and this disgusting war crime must be one of the past, not a cause for anger and fear for the future of girls and women.
South Sudan may be geographically distant from Europe and the United States, but a human life is a human life. We can not stand idly by while girls and women in South Sudan and all over the world face such an awful plight. There are mechanisms for action in place. The UN can either establish an independent court or refer the crimes committed in South Sudan to the International Criminal Court. The Security Council can also empower peacekeepers as well as UN member nations to impose and enforce an embargo on both government and rebel forces. The world community has done nothing to protect Kanyere, but we have an opportunity to remove the cold calculation of intervention and recognize that the commitment to life is absolute, no matter what country.