Earlier in February, South Sudan’s rebel group SPLM-IO released seventy-eight women and fifty children its members had abducted and held captive for months, a rare overture from the group. Though commendable, the liberated are just a small number of the thousands of Sudanese civilians who have been abducted during the South Sudanese Civil War, which began in late 2013. In 2018, the SPLM-IO kidnapped more than eight hundredcivilians over the course of a few months, pressing the young men and boys into service as soldiers, and sexually abusing captive women and girls as “wives”.
Official figures on the number of abductees are hard to come by. SPLM-IO commanders deny that kidnapping is used as a tactic by its forces, stating its membership is entirely voluntary. Female members interviewed by Human Rights Watch denied any systemic abuse and affirmed their pride in being a part of the rebel outfit. Those who have managed to escape, conversely, report living in a constant state of fear that their former commanders may find them and abduct them once again. Sexual violence is a strong cultural taboo, making it harder for women to come forward with their experiences. Furthermore, it is not just SPLM-IO members that areguilty of these and similar atrocities. The UN has a list of several groups, including government forces, that have committed violations such as kidnapping and sexual violence since the conflict started.
The February releases were the product of sustained advocacy by the United Nations with SPLM-IO leader Riek Machar, but this also highlights a glaring flaw in addressing the abductee problem going forward. UNICEF, the United Nations children’s advocacy group, has policies in place to negotiate the release of children forced into conflict, but no such similar entity exists for women and girls in the same situation. There is also a lack of accountability due to the absence of a court system to handle such matters, despite such a provision laid out in the peace agreement signed in late 2018 in Ethiopia.
Why It Matters?
SPLM-IO leader Riek Machar has just been sworn in as the South Sudanese vice-president as part of the 2018 peace deal requiring him and President Salva Kiir to form a unity government. The newly formed government has a whole host of issues to contend with, not the least of which is managing the hundreds of thousands who’ve been displaced, establishing a legal system to hold the most egregious offenders accountable without devolving into political gamesmanship, and determining the administrative layout of the land.
Addressing human rights abuses by rebel groups could imperil the formation of a unified military force, another key provision of the peace deal. Ignoring the atrocities committed would embolden the abusers, a scenario that has played out across Africa and contributed to destabilization and potential recruitment for rebel and terrorist groups. The uniquely gendered nature of the kidnapping of women and children also runs up against entrenched cultural norms in South Sudan, meaning that however this issue is resolved, attitudes toward feminism and women’s roles in South Sudanese society and traditions will be challenged.