The Hidden Wounds of Violence Against Women in South Sudan

How many more bodies of dead girls and women do we want to find hanging on trees or ceilings before we put an end to Gender-Based Violence?

Jumping off a building would be too dramatic. Jumping off the Juba Bridge would draw attention. Stabbing oneself would take a while. How on earth could a tired South Sudanese woman end her misery quickly and easily? Without drawing attention or traumatizing her children.

Bakhita (not her real name) is currently a single mother of three. Only a year back, she was contemplating suicide because she felt like there was no more meaning to life. Her then-husband would put up fights with her because she chose to pay her children’s school fees directly without first entrusting the money to him. In addition to these fights, the man’s family kept accusing her of sleeping with other men because their son told them Bakhita had opted for family planning and did not want to have more children. As if that was not enough, everyone blamed her for buying the family house under her name.  How could she, when the family head was still alive?  By the time she reached out for help. Her mental health was in jeopardy. She had bought into the narrative of her in-laws. That she was the one to blame for all her marital problems. She felt worthless and undeserving.

The thing about Gender-Based Violence (GBV), is that even if physical injuries heal, psychological ones don’t, unless they are acknowledged, and one seeks and finds help. Even then, healing is not a linear process. Some of the mental health impacts of GBV amongst South Sudanese women include Suicidal thoughts/ suicidal attempts. Just this year, news of an 18-year-old girl in Mingkaman who committed suicide after her brothers beat and locked her up in an attempt to keep her away from seeing a boyfriend they didn’t approve of dominates social media platforms. This is just one of the few reported and many unreported cases of suicide in South Sudan. How many more bodies of dead girls and women do we want to find hanging on trees or ceilings before we put an end to GBV? 

The second common impact is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). A mental health disorder that causes one to re-experience pain from the past like it is happening in the present. It is estimated that 65% of women and girls have experienced physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime. PSTD comes in two different forms, sometimes through nightmares as bad dreams (Which ends up causing a secondary mental health challenge of insomnia) or even during the day as flashbacks; where someone gets vivid images of the events of the past when they are fully conscious. 

Living with PTSD can progress to suicidal thoughts or suicidal attempts if not treated early because victims begin to feel the need to end their misery. Have you noticed how strongly you hold on to your phone after ‘Toronto boys’ (Juba thieves) have taken the other or how you get scared when you hear a moto bike coming from behind you? One can only imagine what it’s like in a country where the majority of women and girls are survivors of GBV! It is several times more complicated and worse, living in constant terror every single day of their lives. 

The last one I will focus on is depression and low self-esteem. I remember going to school with this bubbly, talkative girl we nicknamed ‘weaver bird’. She suddenly became an introvert less than a year into her marriage. She started isolating herself and when in the room, one could hardly notice her presence. “Its maturity,” they said but you could feel there was more to this sudden change than just maturity.

By the time everyone found out that Sarah was going through domestic abuse, her self-esteem was too low to miss and her face was full of fake smiles to hide her pain. “But I am too talkative, I don’t act like a woman,” she said while she forced a fake smile. She would always defend the man’s actions. This went on for a while until it couldn’t anymore. This one time she had this swelling on her head, when we asked she “he didn’t intend to hit me, it was an accident” but we had had enough as her friends, so we did what we had to. “What if he kills you by accident someday, is this all you’ve settled for?”  Of course, she was depressed and had developed low self-esteem to the point where she had no considerations for herself. Sarah doesn’t want to hide these wounds but she’s deeply conditioned to do so. 

I could go on and on about the mental health impacts of GBV on South Sudanese women but I believe at this point you get the picture. As you join activism against GBV during these 16 days, let’s collectively do our best to put an end to GBV and all its associated mental health impacts. You can use your social media to create awareness and add your voice to the fight. When you light a candle against GBV on your timeline, you provide light to those few on your timeline that are living on the dark side, afraid to speak up or seek help. You can also stop victim-blaming and shaming. This point goes to those who expect victims to protect their abusers’ reputations. Just because you ‘know’ the said perpetrator doesn’t give you the right to stop victims from opening up. Listen and believe women, GBV is a crime and a public health issue.