Women, who lead the vast majority of displaced households, may be especially vulnerable, including facing the threat of sexual violence. While some women have begun returning to South Sudan, many are not going back to their homes but seeking a safer and better place to live.
The report, No Simple Solutions: Women, Displacement and Durable Solutions in South Sudan, is by Oxfam, Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), Care Foundation, Danish Refugee Council, and South Sudanese organizations, Nile Hope and Titi Foundation. It highlights the experiences of women in transit and the conditions they need in order to return home.
After five years of brutal conflict, more than seven million South Sudanese – over half the country’s population – are in need of humanitarian assistance. Homes, schools and hospitals have been destroyed and it will take years for essential infrastructure and services to recover.
The conflict created the largest displacement crisis in Africa with over 4.3 million people forced to flee their homes; 1.8 million people are internally displaced and there are 2.3 million refugees in the region.
Elysia Buchanan, South Sudan policy lead, Oxfam said: “Since the signing of the revitalized peace deal, armed clashes between parties have reduced, bringing tentative hope to many. But because of the slow implementation of the deal, many women told us they are still not sure if lasting peace is at hand.”
The civil war also fueled the rise of sexual violence, including rape as a weapon of war, and the abduction of women and girls who were forced into sexual slavery.
With the sheer scale of the crisis, and endemic levels of sexual and gender-based violence, a South Sudanese woman activist quoted in the report warned humanitarian agencies against rushing to support people to return home. “This would be like throwing people from one frying pan to another. Humanitarian actors should take things slow, until refugees and internally displaced people can move themselves.”
Due to the ongoing humanitarian crisis, people returning from neighboring countries often find themselves in more difficult conditions than when they were displaced, including struggling to find somewhere to live.
Connolly Butterfield, Protection and Gender Specialist of NRC, said: “Time and again, women spoke to us of the challenges they face in returning to their homes. They make the journey back, only to find that their houses and properties were completely destroyed, or had already been occupied by strangers, sometimes soldiers. Some of the women said that if they try to reclaim their properties, they have no means of support. They are more likely to be threatened or exposed to physical or sexual assault.”
Because the context still poses risks, all actors should take a long-term, community-driven vision around supporting the conditions required to deliver a lasting end to the displacement crisis, to mitigate the risk of people falling into an endless cycle of movement. It is estimated some 60 percent of displaced South Sudanese have been displaced more than once, and one in 10 have been displaced more than five times.
Buchanan said: “Helping people return to their homes and rebuild their lives is our goal. But by ignoring or downplaying the issues that make returning dangerous, or not ensuring people have adequate information on what they are coming home to, humanitarian agencies could inadvertently endanger people or make their lives worse.
The international community must only support the return of internally displaced people if conditions are safe and dignified, and the decision to return is informed and voluntary. The humanitarian response must be sensitive to the needs of women and girls, taking into consideration the country’s harmful gender norms.
Martha Nyakueka, Gender and Protection Coordinatior of the national NGO Nile Hope, said: “After years of conflict, it will take time for the country to recover. The warring parties who signed the peace deal must ensure that the agreement leads to lasting changes on the ground, not just in terms of security, but also in terms of improving the lives of the South Sudanese people.”
No Simple Solutions: Women, Displacement and Durable Solutions in South Sudan is a joint report by Oxfam, Nile Hope, Norwegian Refugee Council, Care International, Titi Foundation, Danish Refugee Council, and Hope Restoration.