With Sexual & Gender-Based Violence on the rise in South Sudan, International Women’s Day celebrations are more important than ever, yet they’ve fallen casualty to COVID-19 restrictions.
February saw a large spike in the number of COVID-19 cases reported in South Sudan. Public services have been closed for months, and it doesn’t look like we’ll see the lockdown lifted anytime soon. Without an end in sight, we’re anxious about the “shadow pandemic” – the secondary consequences of COVID-19 – and have seen an increase in incidents of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV).
As COVID-19 Cases Rise, So Does Sexual and Gender-Based Violence
The pandemic has cost many people their job and the value of the South Sudanese Pound has plummeted, leading to increased tensions at home. Affording just one meal a day is not a simple task for many families. With so much control taken from people’s hands, stress levels are high. Since the pandemic began, we have been able to continue to meet with vulnerable people already known to us and manage and refer SGBV cases, but expanding our reach has been on hold for many months now. There are more survivors of SGBV that need our support.
With limited access to the community, we’re fearful we aren’t doing enough. Our biggest concern is the sharp increase in cases of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). It is reported that up to 90% of recent cases of violence are related to COVID-19. Pre-pandemic, this was already our main focus, creating safe and empowering spaces for women and girls and providing case management for survivors of SGBV, but the situation has only worsened over the past year. In 2020, 50% of women in South Sudan suffered from intimate partner violence.
Reduced Access to Communities
The virus entered the country in April, and, over the past year, the government has escalated restrictions as cases continue to rise. Travel bans, school closures and curfews created barriers to our activities that transformed our regular in-person activities in Women and Girl Friendly Spaces to door-to-door visits, severely reducing the number of people we can reach in a day. But with the recent uptick in cases, our staff have become less welcome during home visits. Many fear that people from outside of the community could bring COVID-19 to their homes and families, and at as much as $75 per test – more than two months of income – accurately tracking the virus is near impossible.
Our Community Emergency Council members and Community Focal Points act as custodians linking the organization to the community. The latter conduct home visits with support from social workers, making it possible to meet with vulnerable people and still keep within COVID-19 guidelines. They provide crucial information and can refer vulnerable people for relevant services. As trust declines, the community focal points have become our saving grace. These are trained volunteers who serve as the link between IsraAID and their communities, without which, access would be near impossible.
Since July 2020, we have been providing direct psychosocial support to 426 survivors of GBV in Urban Juba, Kajo Keji, Meridi and Lainya. Those supported include survivors of rape, sexual assault, psychological abuse, physical abuse, child forced marriage, and denial of resources or services. These communities are dealing with both their displacement and the pandemic, so it’s crucial to have their trust. As COVID-19 cases increase in South Sudan, trust towards others decreases.
Why International Women’s Day Is So Important in South Sudan
International Women’s Day (IWD) is a day to celebrate and recognize the contribution of women at all levels — family, community, and even institutions. It is a day to educate the community to consider women’s rights in all activities. The women in the communities we work with are our driving force. They plan how IsraAID celebrates IWD, based on their priorities. In the past, this has included singing about women’s rights, short plays, and sports games. Our role as IsraAID is to guide the process, but this year there has been no process to guide due to restrictions imposed by the government on social gatherings.
This week we should be celebrating one of our biggest annual events, but after a year of one-to-one meetings instead of community events, we’re yet again missing an opportunity to reach a considerable number of people with key awareness-raising messages. At our IWD events, we find all different community members – men and women, religious leaders and community chiefs, and girls of all ages. It is an opportunity to meet, discuss, and ensure thousands of new people hear the resilient women of South Sudan.
Even with continued lockdowns, office closures, positive COVID tests in our team, and fear within the communities, we are doing all we can to provide survivors of sexual and gender-based violence with the support they need. IsraAID has been working in South Sudan for 10 years, and with that experience behind us, we know we can get through this pandemic, no matter how long it takes. We hope we will be able to mark the next International Women’s Day together.
IsraAID South Sudan is the core leader of the GBV working group at the state level, and has been actively involved in the establishment of GBV referral pathways in Juba, Kajo-Keji, Lainya and Maridi. IsraAID is an active member of the Humanitarian Response Plan 2021 and is represented in the Protection Cluster, MHPSS Technical Working Group, and Child Protection Sub-cluster.
Galla Isaac Stephen is IsraAID South Sudan’s Protection Program Manager.