Recently an article was published in Christianity Today detailing how World Vision was part of bringing 250 South Sudanese child soldiers home “after years of being forced to serve as soldiers and domestic workers during their country’s civil war.” While reading, I noticed they mentioned children coming back who had “experienced sexual or gender-based violence” and at this, I began to wonder – what happens to these children – mostly girls – when they return home after being raped, beaten, forced to have abortions or to carry a child they didn’t plan for – then considered an outcast to their communities? How do South Sudanese girls find help and healing?
I reached out to World Vision who put me in touch with Mark Nonkes, the Disaster Communication Advisor for World Vision East Africa, and in turn, he provided the post and pictures below of how these girls are finding hope and healing in some of the darkest situations imaginable.
I’d love for you to read and also consider sponsoring a girl close to where this crisis is taking place.
Please note: these are hard stories to read – yes – but I felt strongly that my readers in particular who know first-hand incredible pain and/or have walked with many others through their pain would be able to deeply connect with the women who so bravely shared their stories below.
- Fully informed written consent was provided by the women interviewed
- * names changed to protect identities
By Mark Nonkes, Disaster Communication Advisor, World Vision East Africa
South Sudan’s conflict has taken a tremendous toll on women. As many as half of the women and girls in the country have experienced some form of gender-based violence within the last year, according to data collected by the International Organization from Migration (IOM) in 2017.
The issue of sexual violence against women and adolescent girls is sweeping and occurs in most cases with impunity. In one town in former Western Equatoria, the tales are heart-wrenching.
“When there was an attack at our village, I had to run with my small children. When we were running, a man who was a soldier saw me, and he caned me. I fell. After, he started to kick me and slap me. Then he started to rape me.”
“The children were screaming as they watched this. After he finished and he ran and left me. After a month, I realized I was pregnant. When I went to the hospital, I found I was [HIV] positive,” narrates 35-year-old Lona*.
Jennifer*, a 26-year-old mother of five, experienced similar brutality.
“The men who raped me, I can’t identify them, but they were in uniform. I don’t know what tribe they were from. They covered my husband’s face with a cloth. After that, they slapped him and then they started to sleep with me. One came after another,” remembers Jennifer, whose husband was later killed by her attackers.
Twenty-seven-year-old Susan* witnessed the death of her husband and other men in her village before she and other women were attacked.
“They started to sleep with us. After that, they let the other women run. But I couldn’t run because my leg has a problem. After, they put another child in my stomach because of that raping,” Susan says quietly.
The stories repeat over and over. On this scorching Saturday morning, more than 30 women gather under a mango tree to share their experiences.
Mary Peter Pio, a 30-year-old volunteer, brought the women together after joining a World Vision project aimed to reduce the stigma experienced by survivors of sexual violence and their children born from rape.
Mary, along with over 20 other women’s leaders create safe spaces for women to tell their stories as a means of healing, and for those who wish, to help become advocates, raising awareness, supporting community prevention initiatives and ending the social ostracism so many survivors still experience.
“We conducted awareness campaigns in various communities and tried to help people learn about SGBV (sexual gender-based violence). During those events, several women stood up and said, ‘this happened to me.’ I took their number, and we started to meet,” Mary explains.
Other activities organized included organizing radio call-in shows and football matches where anti-gender-based violence messages were shared.
Training with faith leaders promoted non-violent conflict resolution skills and counseled families who experienced or witnessed violence and to help reduce the stigma that can start with a survivor’s relatives.
“Every time we hosted an activity, someone would come forward and testify that this happened to them or someone in their family. There was a lot of unawareness about where to get help after these traumatic events, a lot of people isolated themselves because they felt a sense of shame,” Mary articulates.
Mary and the other volunteers were particularly concerned when they learned many of the survivors of sexual violence had children as a result of those assaults.
Women were struggling to provide for the children’s basic needs and facing a new form of hostility.
“Where I’m staying people were laughing at me. They were saying ‘look at this one, she was raped, and even she is poor, and she will remain poor because no one will love her again,’” Susan shares.
Lona too experienced similar treatment.
“People were saying ‘you see this one, she was raped,’ and they would say ‘who can love her again’ and ‘look at the child, which kind of child is this one.’ They started to nickname the child – that – you, you come out of rape,” Lona narrates.
The lack of compassion and discriminatory attitudes is a result of ignorance, says Francis Philemon, another community volunteer determined to change community understanding of gender-based violence and sexual assault.
“At the beginning of this programme with World Vision, people were not able to talk in public and testify to the problem. We faced it rough. But when we continued to raise awareness, in the community, in the school, and in the media, people were able to testify and talk openly without hiding with any problems,” Francis says. “Our collective voices gave us more power, and we were able to help people learn. Now, we find that people are yearning for more information about how to prevent and address violence in their communities.”
The regular meetings for survivors and their supporters are igniting a sense of comfort and unity.
“I was not able to reveal that message of what happened to me to anyone. Through this programme, I have been able to tell the group who is counseling me what happened,” Susan says.
“The group is helping us in counseling, to remove the trauma in our minds. The group is telling us not to abuse the child or to tell the child that ‘I was not willing to have you but unfortunately the man raped me and that’s how you came.’ The group is telling not to discriminate against that child,” adds Lona.
Community support groups, formed with World Vision assistance, also enable the survivors to begin to think of opportunities for creating businesses in the future.
“Open a place for us to come and get training and provide a friendly space for children. It can help us become free in our minds,” Lona recommends.
“A place that can keep us busy and remove the trauma in our minds, this can help our children to study with a fresh mind,” Susan urges.
Reflecting on the progress, World Vision South Sudan’s senior protection and gender advisor Lyndsay Hockins says, “Though sexual violence continues to be pervasive in South Sudan, this programme has demonstrated the need to create safe spaces for survivors to share their experiences to move ahead on the road to recovery. It has also helped families understand these women and girls as victims of grave injustice, and that they may become survivors of sexual violence if supported by their loved ones and community.”
Mark Nonkes is a Canadian-born humanitarian worker based in eastern Africa. He is currently deployed in South Sudan as the communication manager for World Vision. Find more of his work on Instagram @MarktheExplorer