Photo credit: Andy O'Connor / Saferworld
Photo credit: Andy O'Connor / Saferworld

“I no longer feel like a prisoner, cornered and betrayed”: How safe spaces for women and girls are helping to uproot gender-based violence

[Content warning: this case study discusses gender-based violence] 

People in Tonj North in Warrap State, South Sudan, have experienced years of conflict within and between communities. Women and girls face not only the effects of violent conflicts but also harmful cultural and gender norms – including forced and child marriages.

As part of a United Nations Peacebuilding Fund (UNPBF) project, Saferworld works with partners in the region to challenge harmful norms and safeguard women’s and girls’ mental and physical health – including by supporting women’s centres, which are helping women and girls like Monica and Mary to speak out against abuse and get access to justice.

Monica’s story

When Monica* was 17, her parents gave her some unexpected news. An older man (around 60) from the community was able to pay the high bride price her parents had set – a large herd of cows – and soon Monica would marry him. She had no choice: 

“My parents threatened to beat me up should I refuse. The threats continued even when I got married. On the day of the ceremony, I saw people celebrating and enjoying themselves including my best friend’s father, who I believe was also waiting for the same to happen to his daughter. It was not my happiest day in life. I didn’t experience the joy other women get in their marriages. My husband was abusive, and the trauma broke me – making me feel helpless,” Monica confessed. 

Monica’s new home was far from peaceful: she was constantly maltreated, sometimes went to bed hungry and received no medical attention when she fell ill or for the injuries her husband inflicted. She was forced to have sex with a young man whom she believed to be one of her husband’s relatives so he could produce kids with her. 

“I felt depressed and extremely angry. I had low self-esteem, rage and I felt frustrated. I had sleeping problems every night and found it difficult to build relationships even with fellow girls, and difficulty trusting others, especially my parents, strangers and the men and boys I had known before,” explained Monica.  

Around this time, one of Monica’s neighbours attended a Youth Peace Forum, where she heard about how a women’s centre in Warrap was helping girls like Monica. She told Monica all about it, and Monica decided it was time to seek some support.

A ray of hope – towards justice 

“I remember, my ever best and good time was when I first met with Brianna*, a community mobiliser who works for Women Development Group at the women- and girls-friendly space. She said to me, ‘my dear sister, please be strong and believe in yourself, you have come to the right place, and we shall fight the battle together.’ After going to the women’s centre, I learnt about the different types of violence against women and girls and I also learnt that it is unacceptable and punishable by law. I told her my whole story: My parents sent me to that man just for their own ambition, because they were greedy for wealth – and because of that, the man continued to beat me up almost every day. I didn’t know that abuse was unacceptable, and I didn’t also know where I could find help because my parents had threatened to beat or disown me.”

Monica’s story moved people working at the centre, and they were able to take her case to the authorities.

“[After I shared my story] the Hon. County Commissioner promised to handle the case on my behalf. I was happy when he took out his mobile phone to make a call to the judge. He explained the case to him and told him, ‘I don’t want to hear girls are forced to get married at their young age in this county.’ 

“The County Commissioner ordered the immediate arrest of my father and my husband. They spent several days in police custody and later appeared in court. I was walking on air when the judge passed his verdict freeing me from that marriage. Now I am free and I am so glad for the women- and girls-friendly space in Tonj North. If not for them, by now I would be dead, because that was the only thought that I had throughout my marriage until I spoke to someone from the women’s centre. 

“The support that the counselling provides is essential, as survivors often face the further discrimination of having to confront the stigma and rejection resulting from their experience … More women and girls face situations worse than what I have experienced.  

“Now, I continue to tell other women and girls who face violence from their parents or husband where they can go to get help. Thanks to the psychosocial sessions the women at the centre ran with me, I was able to externalise the pain that was hidden in me,” said Monica.

Mary's story

“I was forced to marry an unknown man, I felt betrayed by the people I trusted the most – even my brothers who I grew up with surprised me by taking the side of my father to the point of threatening to beat me up if I refused to marry the man my father and uncles arranged for me. Their decision frustrated me. It shattered my dreams and left me with no hope in life.”

Mary’s* experience of forced marriage in exchange for cattle – a practice known as ‘bride wealth’ – had a big impact on her mental health and happiness. At 21 years old, Mary became aware of a safe space for women and girls in Tonj North County, Warrap State. She decided to take a training course there on understanding gender and conflict, supplemented by mental health and psychosocial support. Saferworld and the Women Development Group conducted the training.

“Now that I have rediscovered my sense of living again, my story is going to inspire women and girls in our society. I will be an advocate for the rights of my fellow vulnerable women and girls in our state.”

Mary described the training as a turning point for her, providing skills to help her to heal from trauma and stress. She also learnt basic counselling skills to be able to help others. “I feel I have started to heal, I no longer feel like a prisoner, cornered or betrayed. My story is just one of the thousands of similar situations women and girls in our community go through due to their parents’ desire to acquire wealth and the cultural norms that denied us our rights as girls and women in Dinka society.” 

“Now that I have rediscovered my sense of living again, my story is going to inspire women and girls in our society. I will be an advocate for the rights of my fellow vulnerable women and girls in our state.” 

Safer spaces

Funded by the UNPBF, this project is the first initiative to integrate mental health and psychosocial support into conflict- and gender-based violence responses in South Sudan’s Wunlit Triangle (the shared border area of Lakes, Warrap and Unity States).

Friendly spaces for women and girls provide safe platforms to identify and discuss mental health issues related to gender-based violence. More than 175 women and girls like Mary, from seven counties in the Wunlit Triangle, are using safe spaces to resolve disputes in their communities, raise mental health and psychosocial support needs to local leaders and service providers, and offer first aid to women and girls who have experienced violence or abuse from their spouses or parents and other relatives. These safe spaces/women-friendly spaces offer women and girls a platform to confront taken-for-granted cultural norms and practices that, in addition to discriminating against women and girls, could lead to violent conflicts.

Matthew Kurapio, from the Women Development Group, explains: “Our job is to make women and girls feel safe, empower and treat them with utmost respect and empathy. This is the essence of this project and I commend the United Nations Secretary General’s Peacebuilding Fund.”

The UNPBF project is implemented by Saferworld and four women’s rights organisations – the Women Initiative for Development Organization, Women Development Group, Women Vision and Voice for Change. The project, which has been supported with USD$1.5 million, ran from February 2022 to August 2023.

Read more about our work in South Sudan

Read more about our work on gender.

*Note: Names have been changed to preserve anonymity.

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