Strong, Loud and Persistent, Sarah Abeja is the voice of SGBV survivors in South Sudan

Gender-based violence (GBV) is a phenomenon deeply rooted in gender inequality and continues to be one of the most notable human rights violations within all societies. Both women and men experience GBV, but the majority of victims are women and girls. As GBV is the most under-reported crime against women and girls worldwide, the real magnitude of it is unknown.

In conflict, sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) can increase dramatically. Women’s bodies become the battleground, with the rape used as a weapon of war in order to humiliate, dominate or disrupt social ties and ethnic identity. Support networks and local services break down, and the facilities are damaged and destroyed, meaning SGBV survivors are often left to fend for themselves.

The impact of SGBV is devastating: physical injuries, unwanted pregnancies, fistulae, sexually-transmitted infections, including HIV, and death are among the most likely consequences of such senseless violence. Survivors often face social rejection in communities, which increases their vulnerability to further abuse and exploitation.

Sarah Abeja is a voice of SGBV survivors in South Sudan. This young, stunning woman came to Juba from Kajo Keji in 2007 when she started university. She was involved in activism while she was in high school:

“I always needed to correct injustice. I was a sort of advocate and a mediator since my early age and whenever kids in my neighbourhood or school had issues, they came to me for comfort and advice”, Sarah explains.

When she came to Juba, she realised how deep-rooted problems of women’s inequality in South Sudan are. Sarah started to meet the women activists and had a chance to  meet some GBV survivors. Their experiences and the stories she heard, have determined her future career. Sarah is one of the most prominent women activists in South Sudan today. She travels all over the country, advocates and helps GBV survivors to reach the health and legal assistance, MH/PSS, and shelter.

“South Sudan is a traditional society, words like rape, sexual assault or intimate partner violence are prohibited in most of our families and communities. One of my first cases was a girl who has been raped when she was 15 while she was fetching water. She told her mother what happened, but mother advised her to be silent. ‘We will lose our family honour if you speak up, and no one will ever marry you’, the mother advised the girl.”

The young girl became pregnant after the rape and Sarah supported her as she gave birth at the women’s shelter. Sarah and her colleagues then helped the girl complete vocational training to help her provide a new livelihood for her child. Most of the cases that Sarah deals with are young girls who have escaped child marriage. Many others are the survivors of conflict-related sexual violence, domestic violence or intimate partner violence. The majority of women are from the internally displaced community, coming from all over South Sudan. They have fled their homes and often do not have any resources or support systems, so Sarah and her network are the only hope for them to heal and survive.

As the numbers grew, Sarah realised that helping survivors was not enough; “We could live in this never-ending story of GBV and war-related SGBV context for next 100 years, or we could start making change! As soon as we start, we will see progress. With so many INGOs here in South Sudan, we have opportunities to learn, receive training and engage with human rights activists from other countries who are willing to share their experiences and guide us in our mission.”

Sarah believes that only way to improve the women’s and girls’ lives and reduce the alarming numbers of GBV cases in South Sudan, is to improve the education and community sensitisation. She advocates for holistic programmes to raise awareness on the effects of GBV on the individual, the community and society as a whole.

In July 2019, her extensive lobbying and campaign work saw a South Sudanese court annul a child marriage, a rare legal case for which many activists say could signal a turning point for progressing women’s rights across the country.

Sarah’s advocacy work flies in the face of traditional gender norms, where South Sudanese women are expected to be passive and stay out of the political realm. She is aware that her work poses a threat to her safety, as she adds; “Yes, I know I might be in trouble and I have difficult situations from time to time, but I am loud and persistent” … And, I would add … strong and fearless!

Strong, Loud and Persistent

By Violeta Momcilovic – IRSS, Gender, Protection and Inclusion Coordinator

If you decide to remove the writer’s name from the piece (Violeta Momcilovic – IRSS, Gender, Protection and Inclusion Coordinator) this pronoun needs changed.

I would be tempted to change it to ‘we’ (meaning IRW) – or if you prefer, you can delete the last phrase to avoid complications.