Sexual violence is double tragedy to immigrant girls

Wednesday June 24 2020

South Sudanese refugees in Al-Eligat along the border in Sudan's White Nile state on February 27, 2017. Four South Sudan soldiers went on a rampage, raping and torturing women and girls. FILE PHOTO | ASHRAF SHAZLY | AFP


South Sudanese on social media have watched and read with horror the testimonies by South Sudanese girls and young women who have experienced and have lived with sexual violence and the impunity with which it is apparently meted out in the diaspora communities in the US, Canada and Australia. Reading through these, my take is that the testimonies seem to have two goals. One is a sense of emotional relief that a survivor feels from offloading all that burden of having suffered in silence for so long. The other is to expose and shame the perpetrators, especially that the victims and survivors do not seem to have any other recourse for justice, given the fear and sense of shame that the families and communities make the victims and survivors shoulder.

There is also the feeling that communities and families are often reticent to support their daughters, as they themselves feel ashamed by what has happened to their loved ones. And then there is the issue of the justice system being out of reach for these immigrant young women partly because of the systemic racism and prejudice in their adopted countries, and which have already seemingly written off these youth as trouble-makers and not worth the investment of public resources. In a sense, one has to wonder whether this situation is unique to those communities or has roots and reverberates in the socio-cultural and historical dynamics in the society of origin in South Sudan.

I respect and applaud the young women and girls who came forward and risked their image in the community to speak up about these heinous acts. Some of their stories made me sick to my stomach. I was happy that these girls spoke up, for I had heard of these situations for years but in hash-hash manner throughout the diaspora communities. Reading their stories, no matter where one looked, violence is violence, especially sexual violence, and should never happen to anyone, no matter the circumstance, and should be punished in the strongest way, with an eye to deterring it.
We are all at a loss as to how to punish and deter this monster, given that it is happening in immigrant lands thousands of miles away from home, both in terms of physical distance and in the cultural sense. Leaving it in the hands of the local justice system in the new immigrant countries is untenable, given the systemic prejudices and failures in this system that disadvantage immigrants. We can try to address it within a wider social and cultural contexts, going back to the roots in Africa, but which society is that? Since the immigrant community has lost its grip of these situations and has found itself neither rooted in its home tradition back in Africa, nor adopted the essence of the rule of law in their adopted homes, which way do families caught in these utterly dislocated identities turn?

More importantly, if the elephant in the room is a horrendous scourge of sexual violence in our immigrant communities, the forearms or the legs of that elephant are the obvious gaps in these otherwise heart-breaking testimonies of violence. Those limbs of the elephant are more insidious and fundamental. Any entity that calls itself a community can only ignore this to its own detriment. You may have noticed in these stories by young girls and women that kids are roaming unsupervised, going to parties where alcohol is served to minors, all against the law, and I have not heard of fathers and mothers storming these parties to drag their minor children out of a drunken party, where orgies are taking place, as these testimonies have revealed. Has any of you noticed and wondered how nearly half of these stories involve 16 or 17-year old girls talking of being assaulted while drunken senseless and did not know what was happening to them? The truth is that many, if not most, of us in the diaspora have failed at parenting or are entirely absent from our kids’ lives. This is not to say that these kids are wrong in this effort to expose and shame their abusers; no question that they suffer unimaginable ordeals. But I also fear that there is a lot of cloud over the believability of some of these "victims", given that the only thing we see in these stories is blaming and shifting everything off these youngsters. You want us to support them to get justice, sure, I am a parent to girls, and I want nothing more than this. But have we gone to such an altered universe as to not see that victims also have some responsibility, just like every one of us does?
Obviously, a victim of sexual assault cannot be victimised twice by expecting her to take responsibility for the actions of her victimisers, but what if the victim, her family and all of us as a society, have relinquished our responsibility to names on social media platforms, and the only fault we can see is another youngster, a teenage boy, who was also drunk, finding himself in a situation where no child, girl or boy, should have found themselves unsupervised in the first place?
One story actually broke my heart as much as it left me with questions. This is the story of the girl who wrote about being at a drunken party, lured into a room by another drunken boy, being groped, molested, touched, boy basically trying to penetrate her, and had to close her legs, going quiet; after which the boy just fell asleep, passed out and snored away on top of her and she stayed there, awake, underneath him, until sun came up.
Now, I cannot pretend to be an expert on the psychology of how sexual assault victims react or reason, but I could not help wonder, “here I am, pinned down by force, by a much bigger monster of a young man, I played numb until the beast fell asleep, but I went ahead and spent the rest of the night underneath him and did not see that I could easily push him off, run out and head home as fast as I could! Am I a monster for not seeing holes in this logic, or does this story leave a lot to be desired?

As much as people say we South Sudanese are violent against women with impunity, the reality in our varied communities is different. I know in most Nilotic communities where honour of the whole community is tied to women’s shoulders, violence against women is the most frequent trigger of communal or family-to-family violence, for no one will tolerate it against their own women. Part of the problem we’ve on our hands in the West is our dislocation from our context, both in parenting and in addressing violence when it occurs.

What I describe here is of course different from the kind of sexual and gender-based violence that is related to political conflict or war, which builds on socially rooted gender inequities and the woman’s station in society. It is an abbreviation and not normative and needs to be addressed in the context of transitional justice. Those cases that are happening in communities and families have been addressed through customary legal practices, not all of them sufficiently and adequately. Gender still hampers justice for women.


I am puzzled when I hear people say that these social media campaigns of shaming rapists and predators are the most effective way to deal with this scourge. How is that a solution for the South Sudanese context, diaspora or home?  I understand it in the context of the “Me Too” movement, as this movement has brought down some of the most influential figures in the Western Society, the Hollywood stars, from Bill Cosby to Harvey Weinstein to Kevin Pacey and others. But this is because the whole Western culture and society supported the victims, through both judicial system and by destroying the image of the perpetrators. Which of these can our society adopt and implement to the satisfaction of the victims, legal or social? If the whole idea of a society, as far as immigrant South Sudanese are concerned, has moved away from “society” as we know it, to impersonal cyber space, what solution is there for these young victims, other than feminists seizing on these stories and running with them, without caring whether or not there is justice for the victims in their campaigns?

The author is a professor of anthropology at Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University.