One year on from the signing of the peace agreement, millions of South Sudanese remain displaced as the country braves a humanitarian crisis and people fear that peace may not last, according to a new report.
Women, who are the vast majority of displaced households, may be especially vulnerable, including facing the threat of sexual violence.
While some have begun returning to South Sudan, many are not going back but seeking a safer and better place to live.
The report, titled No Simple Solutions: Women, Displacement and Durable Solutions in South Sudan was jointly conducted by multiple aid agencies namely: Oxfam, Norwegian Refugee Council, Care Foundation, Danish Refugee Council, and South Sudanese organisations, Nile Hope and Titi Foundation.
It highlights the experiences of women in transit and the conditions they need in order to return home.
After five years of brutal conflict, more than seven million South Sudanese—over half the population—are in need of humanitarian assistance.
Homes, schools and hospitals have been destroyed and it will take years for essential infrastructure and services to recover.
Earlier, the chairperson of the Revitalised Joint Monitoring Commission General Augustino Njoroge confirmed that government soldiers still occupy some civilian centres in parts of the country despite the peace deal.
The conflict created the largest displacement crisis in Africa with over 4.3 million people forced to flee their homes; 1.8 million people are internally displaced and there are 2.3 million refugees in the region, according to UN statistics.
Elysia Buchanan, South Sudan policy lead, Oxfam, said several displaced women in their testimonies expressed doubt over the sustainability of the current peace under implementation.
“Since the signing of the revitalised peace deal, armed clashes between parties have reduced, bringing tentative hope to many. But because of the slow implementation of the deal, many women told us they are still not sure if lasting peace is at hand,” she said.
With the sheer scale of the crisis and endemic levels of sexual and gender-based violence, a South Sudanese woman activist quoted in the report warned humanitarian agencies against rushing to support people to return home.
“This would be like throwing people from one frying pan to another. Humanitarian actors should take things slow, until refugees and internally displaced people can move themselves.”
Due to the humanitarian crisis, people returning from neighbouring countries often find themselves in more difficult conditions than when they were displaced, including struggling to find somewhere to live, the report says.
“Women spoke to us of the challenges they face in returning to their homes. They make the journey back only to find that their houses and properties completely destroyed, or already occupied by strangers, sometimes soldiers.
“Some of the women said that if they try to reclaim their properties, they have no means of support. They are more likely to be threatened or exposed to physical or sexual assault,” Connolly Butterfield, protection and gender specialist with the NRC, said.
An estimated 60 per cent of displaced South Sudanese have been displaced more than once, and one in 10 have been displaced more than five times.
The report calls on humanitarian agencies to do more help to people caught in the endless cycle of movement.
“Helping people return to their homes and rebuild their lives is our goal. But by ignoring or downplaying the issues that make returning dangerous, or not ensuring people have adequate information on what they are coming home to, humanitarian agencies could inadvertently endanger people or make their lives worse.
“The international community must only support the return of internally displaced people if conditions are safe and dignified, and the decision to return is informed and voluntary. The humanitarian response must be sensitive to the needs of women and girls, taking into consideration the country’s harmful gender norms,” Buchanan said.
“After years of conflict, it will take time for the country to recover. Those who signed the peace deal must ensure that it leads to lasting changes on the ground, not just in terms of security, but also in terms of improving lives of the South Sudanese people,” Martha Nyakueka, gender and protection co-ordinator of the national NGO Nile Hope said.
The protracted South Sudan war has claimed nearly 400,000 lives since its start in December 2013.