* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Girls flee sexual violence in South Sudan only to be raped again in refugee camp
I knew that meeting rape victims living in the world’s biggest refugee camp wouldn’t be easy. I knew the girls I encountered in Bidi Bidi, on Uganda’s northern border with South Sudan, would have harrowing stories to tell of the brutal violence they’d experienced. I knew they’d be psychologically scarred, that they were alone and had babies now which were the product of rape.
What never occurred to me was that some were still being raped in the very place they’d fled to for refuge.
Like seventeen-year-old Winnie*, who was raped at the camp two months before I met her.
“I came to the camp from Yei [a state in southwest South Sudan] with my baby,” she tells me. “I ran away after being raped by a gang of men with guns, who killed my younger sister and raped my older sister so she couldn’t move, before my eyes.”
All alone with a young child to take care of, Winnie lives in a flimsy tent located on the edge of a busy night market inside the camp.
“Lots of men come into this area at night-time and I feel so afraid,” she says.
There was little she could have done to stop herself from being attacked again: her tent has no door, leaving her vulnerable to unwanted visits.
Hiba*, another girl from Yei, has a similar story. Aged 16, she already has a three-month-old baby to care for in the camp, as well as her five-year-old sister. Her baby was also born out of gang rape
Hiba also lives in fear that she will be attacked again in the tiny makeshift hut she lives in. “Men knock at my door at all hours of the night while I’m all alone and trying to sleep,” she says.
Their fear and repulsion at what they’d experienced prompted the same emotions in me. When each girl begs me to take them away with me – to somewhere they could feel safe – I weep.
Girls like Winnie and Hiba have been forced to bear the brunt of South Sudan’s tragic descent into bloody conflict and displacement since 2013. A recent UN survey carried out in camps in Juba, South Sudan’s capital, found around 70 percent of women had been raped since the conflict began. In Uganda’s West Nile region where Bidi Bidi is located, the UN refugee agency is treating around 120 cases of sexual or gender-based violence per month – a figure which is surely just the tip of the iceberg.
No women or girl should ever be subject to rape. What could be more tragic than a victim of sexual violence being raped again in the very place they fled to for safety?
The Ugandan government, and humanitarian agencies, including my organisation Plan International, are doing what they can to help such girls.
But with a million South Sudanese refugees having sought safety in Uganda since July 2016, the country – itself one of the poorest in the world – needs serious support if it’s going to keep every refugee fed, clothed and safe from violence. As of August, only a quarter of the £673m the UN refugee agency said was required this year to meet refugees’ basic needs had been raised. Without further funding, girls like Winnie and Hiba will remain vulnerable.
“I want you Susannah to be my mother, to be my sister, to be my everything,” says Winnie as I get ready to leave. “Where you are going, don’t leave me behind. Take me with you.”
It breaks my heart that I can’t do that. All I can do is tell her story.
Plan International is constructing secure accommodation and providing emotional support to refugee victims of sexual assault in northern Uganda. To support them, visit: https://plan-international.org/make-donation
*name changed to protect identity