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A Plea to the UN to Address Sexual Violence in Conflict

Deaf Activist Warns “Our Wounds Will Never Heal”

Video screenshot showing Caroline Atim addressing the United Nations Security Council during a virtual meeting, April 14, 2021.

When Caroline Atim, founder and director of the South Sudan Women with Disabilities Network, spoke to the UN Security Council this week, I watched her hands intently and listened to her sign language interpreter, as she described the devastating impact of sexual violence in the South Sudan conflict.  

If impunity prevails, she said, “our wounds will never heal.”

Atim, who made history as the first deaf woman to brief the security council, explained that the dire situation in South Sudan is compounded for women and girls with disabilities like her. Globally, women and girls with disabilities are two or three times more likely to experience gender-based violence, especially during conflict. Women with disabilities may find it more difficult to escape, call for help or communicate abuse. Their support networks may have disappeared, along with their shelters and health facilities.

The Security Council has drawn attention to the situation of women in conflict, adopting its landmark resolution 1325 more than 20 years ago and another last year about people with disabilities in conflicts. But resolutions aren’t enough.

First, the UN, international aid organizations and governments need to collect better data to find better solutions. The UN Mission in South Sudan’s 41-page report on access to health services for survivors of sexual violence has just two references to women with disabilities.

Accountability is the broader challenge. While the South Sudan government has set up a special court to address sexual and gender-based violence crimes and court martials to try officers, no senior officials from the government or from armed groups have been held to account to date for conflict related sexual violence and other abuses. When it comes to women and girls with disabilities, Atim said, they, even more than others, may not be believed, making them “easy prey for rapists.”

Atim and other speakers highlighted the importance of a survivor-centered, human rights approach to any response to gender-based violence. “This includes survivors with disabilities,” she told the council. She also emphasized that women, including women with disabilities, need to have a seat at the table in the peace and reconciliation process.

Atim’s message of inclusion, equality and non-discrimination was loud and clear. Now the UN Security Council and governments should listen and act.

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