Sexual violence against refugees – South Sudanese women and girls in the Bidibidi settlement, Uganda

Women and girls fleeing from conflict or crisis areas mostly experience or witness crimes and violence in their home country as well as during the transit stage of their demanding journey to other countries. However, many of them are at increased risk of violence, particularly sexual gender-based violence (SGBV) in the receiving country too, as this type of violence is an ever-present danger in any humanitarian crises. Hereby, especially the female refugees are at high risk of multiple discriminations ascribing the theory of intersectionality. They do not only experience needs related to their refugee status, but also “have special protection needs that reflect their gender: they need, for example, protection against manipulation, sexual and physical abuse and exploitation, and protection against sexual discrimination in the delivery of goods and services.” (UNHCR, 1991). Even though guidelines like the one cited by UNHCR became operative in 1991, SGBV in form of rape, sexual exploitation, or harassment, and forced prostitution among others continue to be some of the most prevalent and traumatizing experiences women and girls must face on a daily basis.

However, not only particularly the female refugees are in high need of protection. People identifying themselves not as one of the binary categories (male, female), more specifically people identifying themselves with a gender which does not match their biological sex are in most cases at even higher risk of SGBV. Even though these affected persons have higher protection needs the following article will solely concentrate on the female population. Nonetheless, the recommendations which will be presented in the end of the article can be used for any vulnerable group despite their sexual or biological gender.

The case of Uganda

Currently, the displacement crisis in South Sudan is the third largest in the world with a projected total of 719,000 people migrating to Uganda by the end of 2021 (Beaumont, 2018). Many of them settle in the Bidibidi settlement located in the Yumbe district, which is not far from the border between both countries. Even though Uganda is noted for its innovative policy for refugees welcoming them regardless of their origins or ethnicities, the local government demands a recognized refugee status to stay in the country. Yet, Uganda assigns the refugee status solely to people living in designated spaces like formal camps and settlements. To receive protection from the UNHCR and assistance from other local and international humanitarian actors and aid-givers, South Sudanese refugees need to stay in the mentioned settlements. Therefore, many experts argue that people immigrating to Uganda are restricted from their right of free movement and describe the displacement crisis as being institutionalised.

Root causes of SGBV

SGBV is defined as violence based on differences between genders which can result from unequal and asymmetric power relations between men and women. As it is the case in some Global South countries, women face the issue of violence in male dominated or patriarchal cultures. In these societies, violence against women is culturally accepted which puts men in a commonly accepted powerful position. In Ugandan and South Sudanese societies women are considered as subordinate to men meaning they are more vulnerable to exploitation and, therefore, more likely to experience SGBV. However, the risk of SGBV might further increase the more dependent the females are on e.g. their husbands and male household members. Especially in refugee camps or settlements where families lack basic services and goods, women are often likely to experience violence.

At the same time, the household dependency on women as breadwinners can lead to depressing circumstances for men since they lose their traditional role as provider for their families. Since many South Sudanese men send their women ahead to Uganda to be safe, while they stay back to take care of their private property or are killed in the conflict in South Sudan, approx. 85% of the refugees in Bidibidi are women or children (UNHCR, 2021). This means that approx. 70% of households in the settlement are women-led (Liebling, Barrett and Artz, 2020) and left without a male head of household. Particularly in the Bidibidi settlement, the issue of SGBV can be partly ascribed to a power shift of the traditional gender roles as men feel threated in their masculine identity. To sum it up, in the long run, the shift of gender superiority might lead to intimate partner violence and future relationship abuses.

In an interview with Anum Shafique, a Master student writing her thesis about the gaps in humanitarian programs targeting SGBV in the Bidibidi settlement, we talked about the different types of violence against females and their consequences. Anum is from Lahore, Pakistan and has a background in pharmacy, where she participated in a five-year doctoral program. Simultaneously, she always volunteered as a social worker. Since Anum worked especially with women groups, she felt certain that she had to research about a topic related to women and their vulnerability in particularly Global South countries. Her thesis is part of an interuniversity, multilingual thesis, and two-years program in Uppsala, Sweden during which she specialized on “Humanitarian Policy and Practice” at the Ruhr University in Bochum, Germany.

Motivational factors for research in Global South countries

Though, as Anum deep dived into the factors and consequences of SGBV she noticed several issues around the topic in current academia which needed to be researched in more detail. Primarily, she addressed the general issue of underreported cases of SGBV which is described as one of the main problems in many humanitarian articles or reports. According to Anum, in countries like Pakistan or Uganda, SGBV is a very sensitive topic which is highly stigmatized and tabooed. Many women and girls feel shame or must face future challenges when reporting about their experiences.

She calls out on the case of Qandeel Baloch, a social media influencer and model from Pakistan who got killed by her brother. As Qandeel was the person providing money for her family and her work was considered as ‘non-reputative’, her brother felt she was being too independent and that she was dishonouring him. In these patriarchal cultures as Anum calls them, women are expected to be silent about their experiences, if it is by their own consent or if they are forcefully compelled to do something, in order to protect themselves. However, Anum feels that if there was more awareness about abusive family dynamics or intimate relationships, as well as if countries would provide safe spaces for the survivors of SGBV, the number of women reporting about SGBV cases might increase.

When explaining to me why she was considering Uganda as her case study, she says that there are a lot of general issues in refugee camps all over the country as e. g. a lack of firewood. Furthermore, the Bidibidi settlement faces a lack of service provision to female refugees. In the past, women reported about a lack of professional personnel in the settlement who were not able to offer e. g. psychological support. Additionally, Anum tells me about several reports mentioning a lack of proper lockable safe spaces for survivor’s confidential documents. She explains that this increases the risk for women to get attacked by their perpetrators if they find out about the report. All in all, she mentions that Pakistan and Uganda are quite similar when it comes to culture-bound male dominancy in traditional society and issues of reporting SGBV to authorities.

Moreover, there is not much temporary research about structural and operational gaps in aid organizations’ programs working with SGBV affected women and girls. Even though most organizations have policies, conventions, or guidelines like the one by UNHCR from 1991 cited in the beginning, the issue of SGBV is still prevalent in any humanitarian crisis. Due to her assessment, Anum highlights the need for more evidence of effective SGBV prevention and response strategies all over the world.

The role of humanitarian organizations

As a result of Covid-19, pre-existing inequalities for women resulted in alarming health and economic impacts. Moreover, women and girls face higher risks  of SGBV due to social isolation and limiting mobility restrictions which are especially strict in (over-)crowded refugee settlements. Anum wanted to learn more about how organizations could improve their programs and policies. In her thesis, she concludes that past interventions in the Bidibidi settlement failed due to the organization’s top-down-approaches in dealing with e. g. intimate partner violence. In addition, the material produced by organizations to educate their staff was often unread by those working most closely with the potential victims and it was rarely used to shape program responses. Anum makes it even clearer by stating:

“I do not want to say that humanitarian organizations did not improve and work hard in this period but still it is not enough to release guidelines, handbooks, or conventions. I think it is important to work with the people instead of working in an office and create policies which are not realistic. This is how I made up my mind to research on this question because to end the issue of SGBV we need time and passion to fight it.”

One of Anum’s main points is, that if humanitarian organizations work according to the gender lens, then the risk of violence can be decreased. Her work is closely related to the United Nation Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) 5; however, Anum makes clear that in practice assistance programs’ outcomes should cover more than the equality aspects. In the humanitarian field, she relates to cases where men reported feeling dispossessed because organizations solely focused their programs on women. Therefore, Anum calls out on organizations to not exclude men, but to separate programs and balance the program’s objectives between genders. If organizations would treat women and men equally, specifically in areas like Uganda, men would feel more confident while women were also encouraged and supported. However, violence against females might still be culturally accepted. Therefore, gender equality basically relates to more – as in aid organizations must understand that patriarchal cultures and mindsets need to be changed first to mitigate SGBV.

Though, in some cases, the organizations themselves are responsible for the suffering of refugee women and girls. In the past, there were reports about aid staff from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) exchanging goods for sex, sexual abuse, and other cases of exploitation related to asymmetric power dynamics in the field. These scandals of humanitarians exploiting the vulnerable and dependent positions of refugees in formal settlements are one of the main reasons why questions about their liability towards their own SGBV guidelines and standards as well as their accountability arose. Also, they were reason enough for Anum to study the topic around SGBV as she wants to prevent these horrible cases in her future employment field.

Although, one of the greatest issues worldwide is that the aspect of gender and its consequences are still missing in international refugee conventions as a valid reason for granting asylum. Additionally, the internationally recognized organization UN Women is not represented in the Interagency Standing Committee (IASC), meaning UN Women does not have a specific mandate in any humanitarian crisis to protect women and girls based on their gender. To counteract the structural disempowerment women face through a lack of legal protection and representation, Anum set up recommendations for organizations working in the field to fil operational gaps.

Recommendations for the field

According to Anum, aid-givers and social workers on the ground should consider nine recommendations to achieve gender equality and empower women and girls which were identified by her through an extensive literature review. She hopes that through these improvements and their effective implementations, the Bidibidi settlement in Uganda could be a pilot country for future refugee responses or frameworks.

Firstly, she calls for economic empowerment in form of livelihood support to particularly women-led households. Secondly, every organization on the ground should make sure they have qualified and thoughtful staff capable of dealing with sensitive issues and following the relevant guidelines to mitigate SGBV. In cases of sexual misconduct from aid workers, there should a zero-tolerance policy and strict measures for the perpetrators, as well as efficient training opportunities for the staff. This must go together with secure and efficient reporting mechanisms to decrease the risks for the survivors and decrease the issue of underreporting. Additionally, Anum states the importance of adequate facilities to provide the affected people with psychological support and health care services. Naturally, these facilities must be staffed with professional medical and psychological personnel. Moreover, the organizations should make sure that men and male community leaders are engaged in program efforts and receive trainings to increase awareness and the future success of prevention strategies. Finally, and one of her most important points, is the inclusion of the refugee women and girls themselves. They must have the chance to voice their needs, concerns, and wishes to find appropriate solutions together with the organizations.

Elena Valentina Mante is a Master student in International Humanitarian Action, Uppsala University, and DDRN University Intern

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