South Sudan secured independence in July 2011 after a decade-long conflict, but only two years later, the country erupted into violence again amid a power struggle between the South Sudanese president and vice president. The renewed violence has displaced more than one million people.
In addition to this ongoing civil war lies another layer of violence in South Sudan; women are suffering from rape, beatings and domestic abuse.
Dr. Mary Ellsberg, Director of the Global Women’s Institute (GWI) at the George Washington University, commented on how gender-based violence is often brutal and easily ignored in crisis-affected countries: “During a war and after the conflict, women are particularly at risk of being raped, which in many places is used systematically as a weapon of war. And often there is a large increase in domestic violence and other forms of family violence,” Dr. Ellsberg continues to state that “the cumulative effect of this on women, who have been living in a war zone for more than 20 years, can be both psychologically and physically devastating.”
This has prompted a study in South Sudan to better understand, prevent, and respond to gender-based violence there. GWI is the lead technical research partner on the study in a consortium led by the International Rescue Committee (IRC). The consortium includes global humanitarian organization CARE International UK, and Forcier Consulting has been hired by GWI to assist with data collection.
In August 2014, Dr. Ellsberg, Executive Director of GWI and GWI Director of Research Manuel Contreras-Urbina traveled with Heidi Lehmann of IRC to Juba (the capital of South Sudan) and Rumbek to assess the feasibility of conducting research in the country. They met with local and national authorities, members of women’s rights NGOs, and community workers to map out a plan for their research. They also visited a Protection of Civilians (POC) camp where they plan to conduct parts of the study. Despite the complex and fluid political and social context, the team concluded that it is both feasible and relevant to conduct a mixed methods study on VAWG in South Sudan.
This will be the first population-based study in South Sudan to estimate prevalence, causes and consequences of violence against women and girls.
“What types of violence are these women experiencing? How prevalent is it? Where is it happening? Knowing the answers to these questions can help to make changes at a community level,” Dr. Contreras-Urbina said. “This research is the beginning step in a very long-term process.”
The researchers will use a cross-sectional household survey, and plan to conduct interviews with 2,000 women and 1,000 men. Ethical concerns are paramount, prompting GWI to survey participants only in areas where IRC is present, ensuring services can be provided during and post-interview. The semi-structured, in-depth interviews will ask questions pertaining to a 15-year range in the participants’ lives. A strategic research uptake plan will be used to make sure results of the research will be useful to key policymakers, researchers, practitioners, activists and other stakeholders in effectively preventing and responding to violence against women and girls.
A technical advisory group (TAG) will play a key role in guiding the research in South Sudan. Members of the TAG include representatives from all three consortium partners (IRC, GWI, and CARE), various UN agencies, the Department for International Development of the UK (DFID), and local partners. The TAG met for the first time in October 2014, after the feasibility study in August, and will meet regularly throughout the project.
Few studies have assessed the full scope of gender-based violence in conflict settings, making this study particularly unique: “In South Sudan, this will be the first rigorous study to measure the different types of violence that women suffer throughout their lives,” Dr. Ellsberg said. “We hope to not only shine a light on the horrendous suffering of women and girls in South Sudan, but also to help create effective solutions for preventing violence there and elsewhere.”
To conduct their study, the researchers will need approval at national, state and village levels. In addition, interviewing women and men about the sensitive issue of their experiences of violence requires special training for interviewers and precautions to avoid putting participants and researchers at risk.
While the challenges may be vast, Dr. Ellsberg stresses that this kind of evidence-based research is key to addressing the problem of gender-based violence in the region:
“What I have found in my personal experiences, working in Nicaragua and other places, is that having numbers is incredibly powerful for persuading policymakers and international agencies that domestic violence and rape are serious offenses that need to be addressed”.