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South Sudanese Women on the Move: Their Roles in Conflict and Peacebuilding

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South Sudanese Women on the Move: Their Roles in Conflict and Peacebuilding

Marisa O. Ensor

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Enduring violence, climate change and other environmental crises force people in South Sudan to flee their home towns. Women and girls face gender-specific challenges and opportunities as they seek to cope with new environments and changing social structures.

Women and Children wait for medical treatment in a clinic in Juba, South Sudan. Women and children are the most vulnerable to food insecurity. (© picture-alliance, abaca | AA)

The number of South Sudanese refugees currently stands at over 2.2 million people , while an estimated 1.5 million are internally displaced. Combined, these figures represent the highest level of displacement in the African continent. Displacement and the resulting changes in living circumstances – whether in a refugee settlement, a camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs), or a host community within or across national borders – have forced South Sudanese women and girls to cope with new environments and changing social structures.

The Context of Fragility and Displacement

South Sudan has a long history of conflict and displacement. The Second Sudanese Civil War (1983-2005) between the government in Khartoum and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) – largely a continuation of the First Sudanese Civil War (1955-1972) – triggered one of the worst humanitarian disasters of the 20th century. It resulted in over two million casualties, most of them civilians many of whom died of starvation and disease. Over five million people were forced to flee their homes. A peace agreement put an end to the conflict on 9 January 2005, and the Republic of South Sudan became an independent nation on 9 July 2011.

Violence erupted once again in December 2013 between forces loyal to the government and opposition forces. Inter-communal conflicts also intensified, often centering on competition over land for pasture, cattle raiding, and the abduction of women or children. Multiple peace deals and ceasefires were almost immediately violated. In 2018 which has largely held in most areas. The latest war (2013-2018) resulted in an estimated 382,900 casualties, and forced nearly 4.5 million to flee their homes.

The country faces multiple socio-economic, political and environmental challenges. Additionally, the population has to deal with the effects of climate change: As temperatures rise, and rains become more erratic, crop failures and livestock deaths are becoming more common. So is conflict among pastoralists over water sources and grazing areas, and between pastoralists and farmers. Over 80 percent of the population live below the absolute poverty line, and over 6 million faced severe food insecurity in 2019. As South Sudan’s National Policy on Gender recognizes, "although women are the main producers of food, women and children are the most vulnerable to food insecurity because of traditional gender roles that limit their access to and control of productive assets". Nearly a million people were affected by severe flooding in 2019, with an estimated 420,000 new displacement cases. The main countries of asylum are the neighboring African nations of Uganda (39 percent); Sudan (36.5 percent); Ethiopia (15 percent); Kenya (5.4 percent) and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, DRC (3.9 percent).

Projected South Sudanese Refugee Population

Host CountryRefugee Population
31 Dec. 2019
Projected Refugee Population
31 Dec. 2020
Projected Refugee Population
31 Dec. 2021
DRC88,717105,000105,000
Ethiopia 334,014306,000300,000
Kenya 121,414122,000120,000
Sudan 810,917875,000886,000
Uganda 861,590792,000719,000
Total 2,216,652 2,200,000 2,130,000

Source: UNHCR data

While records are rarely disaggregated by gender or age, the UN Refugee Agency estimates that 83 percent of the overall South Sudanese refugee population are comprised of women and children. Often characterized as groups with "special needs", women and girls are susceptible to multiple protection risks, including lack of basic services, food insecurity and different forms of violence including beatings, rape and gang rape, sexual assault and forced labor.

Women in Conflict and Peacetime

Mobility, forced or otherwise, has been a persistent livelihood and survival strategy throughout South Sudan’s various cycles of war and peace. Displaced women’s position and roles have been more diverse and complex than suggested by the one-sided portrayals of females as suffering victims prevalent in humanitarian and popular culture accounts. During the Second Sudanese War, women joined the SPLA as both supporters and combatants. Many women accompanied their husbands to the training camps in Ethiopia; some provided healthcare, cooking and other domestic and sexual services; others were trained as soldiers themselves, taking up arms alongside their male relatives. There were some 3,600 female combatants when the 2005 peace agreement was signed. Women’s use of songs to encourage male kin to join the fighting ranks – or publicly shame them if they did not – became a common war tactic. This practice was then extended to incite male relatives to engage in cattle raiding and revenge killings, contributing to the generalization of violence.

Conversely, other women were actively engaged in peacebuilding efforts. Many took on community responsibilities and leadership roles traditionally assigned to males. Nominated as community chiefs, some of these women were in charge of food distribution and provision of services for orphans, widows and other potentially vulnerable groups. Women in exile – e.g. those living in refugee camps – became particularly active and organized themselves across ethnic groups working towards the return of peace. Displaced women and girls also developed a more flexible outlook on job acceptability. Brewing and selling beer, and occupations that involve interacting with non-kin males – e.g. waitressing in restaurants and bars – considered disreputable by local standards, are mainly undertaken by displaced women.

Violence Against Women and Girls in War and Peace

In times of conflict or famine, pastoral families resort to marrying off their daughters at an increasingly young age to augment their cattle-based wealth. A bride price paid in cattle for a girl who is married off early is then used to help her brother obtain a bride. Bride prices soared in South Sudan as donor money poured into the country after its 2011 independence from Sudan. Higher bride prices encouraged the treatment of women and girls as chattel. They also prompted the many young men who could not afford to get married to raid cattle from other communities. Child marriage appears to be more common among pastoralists than among farmers less reliant on cattle for their survival. It is also less frequently reported by returning refugees and other displaced groups than by those who stayed behind.

When civil war engulfed the country again in 2013, egregious human rights violations including sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), were perpetrated with near complete impunity. Armed men affiliated with various military groups routinely attacked women and girls at gunpoint; those on their way to fetch water and fuelwood, heading to food distribution sites and, ironically, forcibly displaced women and girls fleeing violence and environmental disasters in their home villages, have been the most likely targets. Whether conflict-related or committed in times of peace, SGBV is a pervasive crime in most cultural traditions in South Sudan given their pronounced male-centric standpoint.

The Way Forward

Women constitute the majority of breadwinners in the country, as 58 percent of South Sudanese households are female headed. That percentage reaches up to 80 percent among displaced households. Those in civil society have demanded a broadening of the political agenda to include protection, education, health, and attention to environmental issues, especially as they impact livelihood provision. Female civil society leaders acted as official observers in the 2018 peace process; women comprised 25 percent of the delegates, while one woman served as a mediator. A Women’s Delegation that met with UN Security Council members during their October 2019 visit to Juba demanded the establishment of the Hybrid Court for South Sudan (HCSS). The HCSS is intended to bring perpetrators to justice and reduce impunity for war crimes, including those committed against women and girls. Displaced women and girls require tailored support and protection to ensure their safety and ability to exercise their rights. Gender-disaggregated data and analysis, and targeted policies and programs backed by sufficient funds are needed to better address the impacts of conflict, environmental crises and displacement on South Sudanese women’s and girls’ lives.

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Marisa O. Ensor is a gender and youth specialist with a background in forced displacement, environmental peacebuilding, humanitarian intervention, and post-conflict justice. She is currently based at Georgetown University’s Justice & Peace Studies Program and Institute for the Study of International Migration.