Women and girls bear an additional burden in any war, as the threat of sexual violence or abuse combines with the standard risks of conflict.
The conflict in South Sudan is no different. Since it began in December 2013, both sides have been accused of using rape and sexual assault as a “weapon of war”. UN envoy Pramila Patten told the Security Council last month that the practice “escalated dramatically” in 2018.
For women and girls kidnapped by armed groups, even if they survive widespread sexual violence and forced marriage, many are left unable to fully rejoin their communities, in part because the programmes intended to ease their transition back into society are traditionally designed for boys and controlled by men.
In South Sudan, more than 950 children abducted by armed groups were released in 2018, as a peace deal, signed in September, tenuously holds. Around 28 percent of those officially released were girls. Many more have reportedly been leaving or escaping captivity unofficially.
To join a reintegration programme, former militia members often have to be included on lists that their male commanders give to those negotiating their release.
Although many women and girls have voluntarily joined armed groups in South Sudan, many others have been forcibly recruited, becoming ‘wives’ to militia members, who then won’t let them leave (it is hard to know how many, as the commanders are in control of the lists).
While some girls kidnapped by armed groups are forced to fight, or to kill civilians while looting villages, most are taken to cook and clean.
When Poni*, 17, was taken from her home in 2015 by an armed opposition group fighting the government, she says she didn’t struggle. “I was thinking... I am just a girl. I don’t have any power to resist and fight with those men,” she told IRIN.
Poni decided her best chance of survival was to obey orders: to cook, clean, fetch water, even to loot. “If you refused to do it, they would immediately kill you,” she said. “I decided to do these bad things because I saw others shot dead, because they refused to obey orders.”
In preliminary findings from a research trip in South Sudan, NGO Child Soldiers International noted in October: “Girls’ involvement in armed conflict is seen as less direct than boys.”
Girls and women who find their way back to their communities on their own aren’t always seen as “soldiers” and consequently those with power don’t put them forward for programmes that could support them.
“As a result, girls have often been excluded from demobilisation and reintegration initiatives,” Child Soldiers International said.
Assistance for women and girls
The UN says it has learned lessons around the support of girls. Since 2006, it has included gender in the guidelines it uses to plan demobilisation, demilitarisation, and reintegration (DDR) programmes in countries including South Sudan.
One key change was the removal of a requirement that fighters hand in weapons or ammunition before they enter a reintegration programme; such a requirement excluded girls involved in armed groups in non-combat roles. Before this change, women and girls involved in the civil wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia were largely shut out of those DDR processes in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
“There’s always a priority on economic reintegration... social reintegration is under-resourced and forgotten about.”
Within South Sudan’s process, which was agreed as part of the September peace deal, the UN and its partners provide psychological and financial assistance to children like Poni, most of whom are reunited with their families. This includes three month’s worth of food rations and other necessities. The DDR programme also assists with education and skills development.
Some NGOs say that still isn’t enough for the released girls. Such programmes, they argue, have historically been tailored towards boys, so female-specific needs – including access to post-rape counselling and care, or better social reintegration – aren’t being met effectively.
“There’s always a priority on economic reintegration, meaning vocational training [and school],” Lyndsay Hockin, a child protection specialist with World Vision in South Sudan, told IRIN. Meanwhile, “social reintegration is under-resourced and forgotten about.”
“Social reintegration” is shorthand for the intangible but ultimately crucial process of being accepted by families and communities again. It may not cost as much as training and counselling, but it requires more time, commitment, and relationship-building, said Hockin, who works in Yambio and the surrounding region of southwest South Sudan.
Stigma and distrust
South Sudan is a difficult place to be female in the first place: 80 percent of refugees and displaced people are women and children; around 75 percent of girls are not enrolled in primary school; more than 50 percent are married before the age of 18; and 58 percent of households are reportedly female-headed.
Since the civil war started, more than 19,000 children are estimated to have been recruited into armed groups, according to UNICEF. Aid workers told IRIN that 20-40 percent of them are girls, but it’s impossible to know exactly.
While some boys are kidnapped to become child soldiers, others join armed groups voluntarily – sometimes out of need, because they feel it is the only way they can feed themselves, said Timothy Irwin, UNICEF spokesman in South Sudan. The same is true of some girls and women in Pibor, in the east of the country, according to Child Soldiers International.
In the region around Yambio, however, experts told IRIN that girls involved with armed groups tend to be abducted, many on their way to school.
“In terms of our caseload, they were all taken against their will,” said Hockin. “They were wanting to be back with their families, and they were not wanting to be still married.”
“Life was so bad, especially for the girls,” 16-year-old Maria* told IRIN. “They would rape us and take us to the commander.”
Maria was abducted from her home by a pro-government militia in 2015. She was formally released in a ceremony arranged by the government’s National DDR Commission in February in Yambio. A total of 348 children were freed that day, 100 of them girls.
The releases were negotiated by local religious leaders, who were escorted by UN peacekeeping troops to meet armed groups in remote areas. A group of women who had self-identified as survivors of sexual violence, many also single mothers, were linked up with the released girls as mentors. Meanwhile, daycare was introduced for young mothers who were going back to school.
Children like Maria who have suffered sexual violence, who may have children themselves, can find it even harder to reintegrate due to the stigma of sex before marriage.
The marriages themselves can carry repercussions too, given that they are often to men who have committed violence against the communities the girls are returning to. In Yambio, the local Zande ethnic group already has a “culture of rumour and suspicion”, said Hockin. Captured children are often used by armed groups to scout out areas ahead of attacks, meaning some are suspected of being spies on their return.
“For the girls that are married… [people ask] was that marriage a conduit for intelligence-gathering?” Hockin explained. “It would be quite natural for the girl to be sharing information with her husband.”
Many returning girls were bullied by their peers in school, but keeping them apart wasn’t a good idea either, she said. “That was actually reinforcing a lot of stigma.”
‘Women live with violence’
While the releases of child soldiers across the country have been from opposition forces and pro-government militias, the UN and the US State Department have reported that all sides in the conflict – including the national army, the South Sudan People's Defense Force (SSPDF) – use child soldiers.
The government and the army usually deny abusing women and girls, but reports from the ground often contradict those denials.
“You are supposed to leave children in peace.”
The SSPDF, formerly know as the SPLA, was accused of mass rapes of women and girls as part of indiscriminate attacks against civilians in Unity State in April-May 2018. After a mass rape of at least 125 women in Bentiu in Unity State in November, the victims said armed men, many in military uniform, had attacked them. Almost two in three women and girls in South Sudan report having experienced sexual violence at least once in their lives.
“Rape has long been condoned, normalised, and used to terrorise women and girls across South Sudan,” said Nyagoah Tut Pur, a South Sudan researcher for Human Rights Watch, adding that authorities should show they are serious about addressing the culture of impunity for such crimes.
“It is not normal and it is not acceptable that women live with violence and that they are sexually abused,” UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka said in October during a visit to South Sudan, where a joint UN-AU delegation said the participation of women was key to the successful implementation of the new peace deal.
There seems to be some willingness to make women more visible in decision-making: the September deal has stipulated a new quota for 35 percent of women in government positions, raised from 25 percent when South Sudan gained independence in 2011.
Even as many observers remain sceptical that peace will hold, with violence still continuing in parts of the country, Poni and Maria hope to move on with their lives. Both want to go to school, using skills they are currently honing on vocational training courses run by UNICEF in Yambio to earn money to pay their fees.
“I was helpless, and now I am thankful,” Maria said.
But it is hard for girls in South Sudan to move on from the trauma they have experienced.
Poni didn’t want to talk about her family, but she did want to say that children like her should be free, that they should never have to go through what she did.
“You are supposed to leave children in peace,” she said.
*Names have been changed
Additional reporting by Silvano Yokwe and Nancy Acayo
The reporting for this piece was supported by the International Women's Media Foundation
Right now, we’re working with contributors on the ground in Ukraine and in neighbouring countries to tell the stories of people enduring and responding to a rapidly evolving humanitarian crisis.
We’re documenting the threats to humanitarian response in the country and providing a platform for those bearing the brunt of the invasion. Our goal is to bring you the truth at a time when disinformation is rampant.
But while much of the world’s focus may be on Ukraine, we are continuing our reporting on myriad other humanitarian disasters – from Haiti to the Sahel to Afghanistan to Myanmar. We’ve been covering humanitarian crises for more than 25 years, and our journalism has always been free, accessible for all, and – most importantly – balanced.
You can support our journalism from just $5 a month, and every contribution will go towards our mission.