This humanitarian and modern-day heroine works to educate on and attend to those who have been traumatized by gender-based violence (GBV) in South Sudan. She herself is a woman from another African country.
Salute to the many who sacrifice much and risk their lives to alleviate the trauma of those who suffer in areas of conflict.
What led you to take on this humanitarian role?
I took this role as part my of humanitarian obligation and ethical contribution towards addressing the needs of vulnerable women and girls during emergencies, as it’s known that in conflict and displacement, women and children, both boys and girls, suffer the most.
What was the biggest surprise for you when you started this work?
The biggest surprise was the high level of violence and suffering. In an acute situation, women often flee to safety with almost nothing as they must concentrate on ensuring that they have their children. Sadly, in the process many lose children. Both the parent and the child experience a lot of trauma when forcibly separated by war.
It is very unsafe to leave a protection site to track missing children or parents as there will be armed groups all over the place. There is practically no mobile communication with the outside world in the initial stages of displacement except through humanitarian agencies who focus on family tracing.
Another big surprise for me was the real extent of sexual violence experienced by women and girls. Rape is used as a weapon of war. Women are sometimes raped when they go to fetch firewood or collect water or even when they leave protected areas simply to work. Some women brew alcohol as a livelihood which puts them at high risk as most of the displaced males are idle, spend the day drinking and when drunk, perpetrate these acts of violence. More than half of reported GBV incidents are of intimate partner violence indicating the high stress levels among couples; children are affected indirectly. Men and boys also experience sexual violence.
Unfortunately, few seek help as the violation of women and girls is perceived as acceptable due to cultural stereotyping. Permission is needed from a male to go to a clinic or there is a requirement to explain their condition to the whole family first. If they don’t accept or understand that a violation has taken place, then what’s the point. Then on top of that, the victims are ostracized. As such, there is a lot of under-reporting in seeking healthcare and psychosocial support.
In a place like South Sudan where there are so many needs, where do you start?
Emergency responses are very well coordinated, and a lot of planning is put in place before responding. Each agency focuses on its area of expertise, but there are inter-agency efforts. The first step is to inform the community of the services available, where to access them and that they’re free. Some community-based staff then assist in identifying people with special needs for further assistance but for the general population, it’s about giving them the information they need to make informed decisions without pressure.
Can you share a moment which moved you?
There are so many moments that have and that also made me reflect on some of the things I take for granted. There was a 9-year-old child that shared his story of seeing his mother beheaded and his younger sister burnt. Yet this boy was still able to hope for a better future and became a team leader for his play group. The child has now relocated to another part of the country to join a foster family.
What progress have you seen in your time in the Sudan?
Tangible progress has been made. The level of awareness has increased; women and girls have started to realize their rights and are starting to raise their voices for redress. For example, there is now advocacy to end child marriage all over the country.
The reporting of GBV cases to clinics or other institutions has increased and indicates that the message has created an impact where women and girls are seeking help.
The services provided have been appreciated and acknowledged by the community, e.g., family tracing and reunification. More girls are being sent to school and they are participating in skills development activities set up especially for women and girls.
You must be frightened at times. How do you deal with the fear?
The training on safety you undergo as you enter this line of work helps you, but you get the greatest inspiration from the people you serve. If they are enduring this level of hardship day in day out, you then appreciate your position because you can opt out when the going gets tough. The interaction with the community helps you to create a positive and resilient coping mechanism. In addition, most agencies have staff counsellors to support you.
The presence of humanitarian agencies in an area is sometimes a deterrent to some attacks. Evacuation plans are activated when necessary to save lives of staff. The converse though is that some humanitarian workers have died because of attacks specifically targeting them.
In memory of St Josephine Bahkita, Patron Saint of victims of trafficking. She was born into a well-to-do family in Sudan in 1869 and abducted by Arab slave traders at the age of 7. She was sold and resold many times and was abused and tortured in her 12 years as a slave. She eventually was sold to an Italian Vice Consul who took her to Italy where she became a Canossian Religious Sister until her death on February 8th 1947.