UNITED NATIONS — Two rivals for power in South Sudan are accused by the United Nations of not only drawing their people into one of the world’s most gruesome wars, but also subjecting the country’s women and girls to unspeakable horrors.
A report issued Friday singled out government forces loyal to President Salva Kiir for systematically using sexual violence to terrorize civilians, including what it called credible reports that soldiers were given license to rape in lieu of wages. Rebel forces loyal to his rival, Riek Machar, also committed atrocities against women, the report said, though not on the same scale.
So why are their wives being hosted in New York later this month by the very arm of the United Nations system devoted to promoting gender equity, known as U.N. Women?
That question surfaced this week with the announcement of an event co-sponsored by U.N. Women and scheduled to take place on the sidelines of the Commission on the Status of Women to discuss “the contributions women are making to the ongoing peace process in South Sudan.”
The panel includes Mr. Kiir’s wife, Mary Ayen Mayardit, and Mr. Machar’s wife, Angelina Teny. They are scheduled to speak on Thursday at the International Peace Institute, a think tank that often hosts events related to the United Nations. The announcement does not mention the human rights abuses in South Sudan that have been documented by United Nations investigators.
In an email, Phumzile Mlambo Ngcuka, the executive director of U.N. Women, said that her office condemned “the horrendous violence against women and girls” in South Sudan, and that “the perpetrators of the appalling attacks on women and girls must be brought to justice.”
Ms. Mlambo Ngcuka went on to add that her office would “engage with women on all sides of the divide to bring an end to violence and collaborate for a sustainable peace in South Sudan.”
“The event focused on South Sudan during the current Commission of the Status of Women aims to foster dialogue to that end,” she said. “It will provide an opportunity for South Sudanese women to engage with peace actors from all over the world, sharing experiences and lessons learned.”
The civil war began in 2013, barely two years after the country gained independence from Sudan, with backing from the United States. At least 50,000 people have been killed so far, and the United Nations says that at least two million people have been forced to flee their homes. The United Nations envoy on sexual violence in conflicts, Zainab Bangura, has spoken of “rampant sexual violence,” including rapes of children, in South Sudan.
The rival leaders agreed last August to set up a transitional government, but they have yet to do so.
Human rights advocates, both inside and outside the United Nations, said they were appalled that the two women were being included in the event.
“The U.N.’s decision to spotlight these two women as peacemakers is out of step with the realities that their husbands’ constituents face on a daily basis back in South Sudan,” said Akshaya Kumar, the deputy United Nations director for Human Rights Watch, in an email on Friday. “By elevating the voices of the wives of two men — who the U.N.’s own human rights monitors have identified as orchestrating the abusive violence — events like this one weaken the broader movement to guarantee women a place at the peace negotiations table more globally.”
Ms. Teny is a veteran South Sudan politician and served as a minister in the government of national unity from 2005 to 2010, before South Sudan won its independence from Sudan.
Ms. Mlambo-Ngcuka will deliver the closing remarks at the event.
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