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COVID-19 brings abuse and other fears to displaced women in South Sudan

‘I’m scared because I can't manage to fight him back.’

Women walk while carrying jerry cans in Malakal, South Sudan Sam Mednick and Kylee Pedersen/TNH
Women walk while carrying jerry cans to fill with water at a UN-protected camp in Malakal, South Sudan, in October 2019.

For Nyaneng Chuol, four months pregnant, COVID-19 restrictions mean she is confined in a camp with an ex-husband whom she says is abusive, often drunk, and increasingly restless, along with thousands of South Sudanese who fled their homes during the civil war.

“I’m scared because I can't manage to fight him back, and now there are no good medical services,” the 30-year-old mother of four told The New Humanitarian by phone.

Chuol fled her hometown of Bentiu in the north of the country to a UN-protected camp in Juba, the capital, after fighting erupted in 2014. 

There is currently no official lockdown in the country. However, there is a dusk till dawn curfew and non-essential businesses are closed as well as sporting events and religious services, and movement in and out of UN-run camps has often been restricted.

Read more: Aid at risk from COVID-19 lockdown restrictions

Government restrictions have impacted humanitarian workers, but also angered some camp residents who couldn’t leave to find work. 

One humanitarian worker, who was not authorised to speak on the record, told TNH she was worried the lockdown restrictions would be detrimental to millions of people reliant on aid across the country. 

“I don’t know how we can continue,” she said. “The government is making it hard to operate, and the situation is going to hurt people in a very real way.” 

More than 90 percent of health services in the country are run by international aid agencies, Francesca Mold, spokesperson for the UN peacekeeping mission in South Sudan, told TNH. There has long been a critical shortage of qualified doctors and nurses, and few have the specialised skills to provide intensive care.

“The camps in South Sudan are, by definition, spaces that provide physical protection to their inhabitants, which also means its residents are uniquely dependent on aid being delivered,” said Jeremy Taylor, East Africa analyst for the Norwegian Refugee Council. 

The International Medical Corps, which operates two clinics in Juba, said its services hadn’t been affected, other than a period between 6 and 8 April after the first cases were confirmed and when security forces weren’t allowing people in or out of the camps.

The IMC is training local health staff so they can provide basic support to those who have suffered gender-based violence, said Gertrude Garway, the group’s GBV programme manager. The organisation is also trying to increase the number of locations and ways for survivors and those at risk to make toll free phone calls to a caseworker.

Now, she said, her ex-husband spends more time drinking with friends who can no longer work outside the camp. Restrictions on aid workers mean there are fewer people she can turn to if he becomes abusive, which she worries will happen more frequently now that he is drinking more. 

The former couple live separately in the camp, but they see each other regularly because of their children. Chuol said she endures consistent beatings. In early April, her ex-husband hit her when she asked for money to support the kids, she said.  

Chuol and other women living in cramped UN-run camps in South Sudan, known as protection of civilian sites, worry that the pandemic has made them more vulnerable to abusive partners and has cut off the already scant options they had to get help.

Others said they feared continued lockdown measures could cause child marriages to spike, as families are unable to leave the camps to earn a living and must look to other means of generating income, including marrying off daughters.

Reports of gender-based violence have risen in many countries since the start of the pandemic, based on data from places such as France or Singapore, where the numbers of calls to domestic abuse hotlines are monitored. Analysts estimate that six months of lockdown measures could result in an additional 31 million cases of gender-based violence, globally.

A neglected issue

Long before the pandemic arrived in South Sudan in early April, aid organisations noted that sexual and gender-based violence isn’t given the priority it needs during humanitarian responses.

Some 65 percent of women and girls in South Sudan have experienced physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetimes, and roughly a third of women have experienced sexual violence from a non-partner.

Some 65 percent of women and girls in South Sudan have experienced physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetimes, and roughly a third of women have experienced sexual violence from a non-partner, often during attacks or raids, according to UNICEF.

However, reliable data on gender-based violence in South Sudan is hard to come by, particularly amid pandemic lockdowns. Even in more normal times, abuse often goes unreported and there’s little to no infrastructure for women to report it.

Around half of South Sudanese women who experience violence do not tell anyone or seek medical or psychological help, according to a study by the International Rescue Committee. This is due to stigma, extremely limited access to services, and a breakdown in rule of law resulting in impunity. “The culture of shame, around rape in particular, is so severe that many women fear reporting the crime could lead to further repercussions, such as being forced to marry their rapist,” said the report. 

Of the $41.5 billion spent on humanitarian responses between 2016 and 2018, for example, just $51.7 million – less than 0.2 percent – was spent on GBV prevention for women and girls.

In South Sudan, since the civil war erupted in 2013, setting off years of extreme violence that included widespread massacres and mass rapes, the UN-protected sites have offered refuge to some 190,000 people, approximately half of them women and girls.

Fighting has subsided since a power-sharing agreement in September 2018, but women continue to be targets of attacks. In late 2018, some 125 women and girls were raped in just 10 days.

COVID-19 restriction concerns

After tests showed that South Sudan’s first four confirmed cases of COVID-19 all involved UN staff members, the government restricted movement of some UN personnel as a precaution to curb the spread of the virus, according to an internal security report for aid workers seen by TNH.

Chuol and others who spoke to TNH via phone said there has been a noticeable difference in restriction of movement and access to resources since the first cases of the virus were confirmed. Access to Chuol’s camp was blocked for a handful of days and some doctors weren’t allowed in, she said.

"The camp is very risky because of the coronavirus,” said Chuol, who worries there will be fewer trained staff to help now if she has trouble with her husband.

If humanitarians, including protection caseworkers, and medical supplies and food can’t get into camps, the dangers to women could become “even more pronounced”, warned Nicole Behnam, senior director of violence and prevention response at the International Rescue Committee. “The desperation of hunger is combined with the increased potential for violence,” she said.

Nyajuani Bol fled to a UN-protected camp in the northeastern town of Malakal with her five children in 2013 after fighting spread to her hometown of New Fangak. Three of her family members were killed. 

“I’m afraid. As a woman, I don’t have power and I can’t do anything.”

Since the arrival of COVID-19, she said police and national security officers have been beating, threatening, and robbing civilians trying to enter the camp. On 28 April, Bol said they hit her on the back and legs and accused her of having the coronavirus. 

“I’m afraid,” she said, speaking to TNH by phone. “As a woman, I don’t have power and I can’t do anything.”

Even though there are no confirmed COVID-19 cases in Malakal, government security is preventing people from coming in or out of the camp and making it painful for anyone who tries.

The movement restrictions have made it hard for Bol, a widow, to feed her children. Before COVID-19, she sold firewood, which she collected in the forest. Now that she is unable to collect the wood, she said she can only afford to feed her children twice instead of three times a day.

The restrictions are also causing congestion at hospitals and clinics.

Patients who came to the camp for treatment before the coronavirus are unable to leave and remain at the clinics, said Bol. When she went for treatment after being beaten at the end of April, she said the clinic didn’t have enough beds and was catering to double the usual number of people. 

As a single mother, she said she is terrified of contracting the virus and leaving her children orphaned: “If corona comes to the camp now, without enough space and nowhere to quarantine and without enough clinics, I think we’ll all die.” 

Additional reporting was provided in South Sudan by contributors whose names are being withheld for security reasons.


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