South Sudanese women, we cannot catch a break, can we? Not even the fact that South Sudan was turning a decade old this 2021 was a reason enough for us to take a deep breath and reflect in July. In this same month, a video of the Press Secretary in the office of the president, Ateny Wek where he sexualised, objectified, and in short, perpetuated rape hits social media platforms. As expected, the video sparked all kinds of conversations. Not long after that, information about the Minister of Humanitarian Affairs and Disaster Management, Peter Mayen, physically assaulted and stabbed his wife started flooding social media platforms.
In April, this same minister made headlines after he interrupted the Women’s Football match in Aweil to stop and have his footballer wife removed from the game that publicly got violently distractive. An action that received a wide range of support as supposed to the condemnation showed South Sudanese perception of power men have over their wives’ lives or career decisions. In the past, some women have gone live on Facebook in attempts to share their experiences of sexual harassment by Ateny Wek.
For women’s rights activists and organisations invested in ending violence against women and girls, none of these incidents came as a shock because sexual and gender-based violence is an everyday reality in South Sudan. What makes these incidents different is the fact that these two men are high-profile public figures and the media attention these acts gathered. The media responded in their usual patriarchal ways of either giving a platform to alleged abusers (an opportunity to justify their actions) or stigmatise the victims even more.
In both cases, we saw media houses such as Eye Radio trying to get Peter Mayen to respond to media reports when he violently disrupted the women’s football match to get his wife off the pitch. SBS Dinka hosted Ateny Wek in an interview where he made it clear that he will not apologize for his sexist remarks. However, he later issued a statement which was rather him justifying his actions, not necessarily an apology. A few days later, disturbing pictures of footballer Aluel ‘Messi’, Peter Mayen’s wife whom he allegedly assaulted and stabbed were circulating on the internet.
If men in such high public leadership positions can openly make statements that perpetuate rape, physically assault their wives with no consequence then what does that say about South Sudan as a country? What message are they sending to young men and boys?
If women can’t feel safe at weddings, in the highest office in the country; the president’s office, while living under the same roof with a Minister of Humanitarian Affairs and Disaster Management, walking on the streets, looking for jobs, seeking promotion at the workplace, fetching firewood or simply out trying to make ends meet for their families, when and where exactly shall they ever feel safe? Young girls are regularly sexually abused and exploited in schools, churches, homes, and neighbourhoods.
I have seen people who for once somehow now feel ‘concerned’ for women’s safety trying to advise women on what to do. Others saying “petition the government, mobilize and match to J1” or do this and that to ensure these two men are held accountable. But as long as women and girls continue to be treated as men’s property, violence against them will always be treated as a family/community matter, not a crime.
Women continue to witness brothers or male relatives feel entitled enough to murder their sisters. Husbands like Peter Mayen beat their wives, and many other cases of physical assault and murder of women get treated as “family matters” because women and girls aren’t treated as equals in any relationship or context. Comments like ‘that is her husband’ translated to stay out of this, and because he is her husband, she must do as he wishes otherwise she deserves whatever harm he inflicts on her.
South Sudanese women have been vocal and continue to take all kinds of actions for every case of sexual, domestic, or gender-based violence. It is just that their voices and efforts are up against a system that tends to protect abusers. When these abusers happen to be powerful men like Ateny Wek and Peter Mayen, their careers, reputation, and status get to be prioritised over any woman’s life, dignity and safety.