The mood in Juba and across many parts of Sudan is one of jubilation, according to several observers at the scene. Among the happiest people are South Sudanese women, who are hoping that the referendum on independence, which began on 9 January and whose results are due in mid-February, will lead to an improvement in their lives.
There is a lot of room for improvement: The women of South Sudan are among the poorest and most marginalized people on earth.
More than two women die from complications of pregnancy or delivery for every 100 live births, making Sudan the most dangerous place in the world to give life. Girls are more likely to die in childbirth than to finish primary school.
Life is hard for girls and women of South Sudan in other ways as well: They face high rates of sexual and domestic violence. Many are forced into early arranged marriages. Dowries, wife inheritance, intertribal abductions and other traditions perpetuate the idea that women are a form of property without inherent rights.
A legacy of sexual violence
Many women remain traumatized from widespread sexual violence that took place during decades of conflict. Although there are no comprehensive studies of the violence, IPS reports that “one survey of 250+ women in Juba County by ISIS-Women's International Cross Cultural Exchange found 36 per cent had been gang-raped, 28 per cent had been raped during abduction; other women reported being forced to have sex in exchange for food."
A report by UNFPA , the United Nations Population Fund, highlights the fact that women in South Sudan lack access to justice on matters of sexual violations and reproductive rights, divorce and child custody. "Over 90 percent of day-to-day criminal and civil cases are executed under customary law, which is largely not only inconsistent with international human rights laws, but also favour men," the report reads.
Putting systems in place to advance women’s rights
Addressing the human rights of women is a key reason UNFPA is working with the Southern Sudan Police Service to support and expand Special Protection Units (SPUs) that address gender-based violence. UNFPA is working more broadly to ensure that basic services will be in place for returnees to the South -- tens of thousands have returned to vote in the referendum, including large numbers of female-headed households.
“Most of these returnees are coming from Khartoum—a place that’s already developed with good services—to places that do not have such services,” says Silje Heitmann, a specialist on gender-based violence for UNFPA in Southern Sudan. “What is UNFPA to do? It wants to make sure that survivors of gender-based violence are receiving all the assistance they need, including reproductive health services, protection and other services.”
In preparation for the referendum, which is expected to result in secession, UNFPA set up an office in the South to coordinate programming for the area. If South Sudan becomes a new country, it will be considered part of the sub-Saharan region, while north Sudan will remain part of the Arab States.
Training police in a survivor-centred approach
Thousands of women survivors of gender-based violence in Southern Sudan have so far sought assistance at the Special Protection Units. First established in 2008, they are now located in 14 police stations across southern Sudan’s 10 states. The units are staffed by police officers who have received special training in assisting survivors of gender-based violence, children, and other vulnerable groups.
UNFPA started establishing the SPUs in 2008 as part of its holistic approach to dealing with gender-based violence. The units are part of the multi-sectoral, survivor-centred approach that the UN promotes in dealing with cases of gender violence. Key interventions include: Prompt medical care, psychosocial support and counselling, legal aid and protection.
In order to enforce the protection aspect, UNFPA, working with the Ministry of Interior of Southern Sudan, began educating police officers about a human rights-based approach to gender-based violence and introducing the SPUs, initially called the women and children desks, to police stations. The units, each staffed by 10 police officers, typically have independent office space to ensure privacy and confidentiality.
More than 500 police officers trained
As part of this effort, UNFPA has so far trained more than 500 police officers -- 40 per cent of whom are women. Each of the training sessions includes no more than 15 officers. During the two weeks of training, officers are introduced to the various types of gender-based violence, the societal factors causing it, and its consequences on survivors. The officers are also taught how to
handle distressed women and children who seek help in their stations, as well as how to deal with cases related to harmful traditional practices, such as early marriage. Other topics cover juvenile justice, human rights and general policing skills.
UNFPA is reaching out to community leaders and non-governmental organizations to alert them of the SPU services. It is also working to give survivors access to health care and to social workers who can counsel them and help them receive financial grants, microcredit or skills training.
The SPUs have already made a difference in the lives of survivors of gender violence, most of whom are illiterate. “Women were used to the idea of not being equal to men, that they are just their property,” says Ms. Heitmann. “Now they are beginning to realize that they can receive help if they seek it.”