Story by Nataliia Emelianova and Gaëlle Sundelin
Up until 15 years ago, a woman who was a victim of rape or abuse would have no one to turn to in Abyei, a disputed area nestled between Sudan and South Sudan. Then came Atoch Dau Deng.
Atoch had seen her home and belongings taken from her when her husband died. At age 35, she was left alone to raise seven children. Determined to help other women in the community, she became their voice. Every day, she would sit on a plastic chair under a tree and collect testimonies from survivors. She helped victims report their cases, sometimes hiding them in her own house for safety and sharing her scarce food with them.
In 2020, she crossed paths with Nataliia Emelianova, UNPOL gender advisor with UNISFA, the peacekeeping mission in Abyei. Meeting her under that very same tree, Nataliia invited Atoch to participate in a training organized by the mission for traditional leaders, women’s associations, and members of the Community Protection Committee (CPC). The training marked a pivotal moment for women in Abyei, when Atoch suggested opening a formal desk where cases of gender-based violence could be reported. Months later the first gender-based violence desk opened. It was constructed by UNISFA, following the initiative of UNISFA Police Commissioner Violet Lusala. On the 15 of June, it was officially handed over to the local authorities and Atoch became the Head of Office. It is a voluntary role, but Atoch has dedicated her life to this work. When she’s home, she embroiders delicate bed covers with colorful threads which she sells to provide for her and her family.
“Over these two years the situation has changed: members of the community can now see that perpetrators are held accountable for the crimes they commit towards women and girls, which never happened before. The cases were not reported, there was no place to report,” Atoch said.
The success of the desk came as a surprise in a society where traditional norms include selling women into marriage in exchange for a dowry of cows and where conflict and violence often put women and girls at risk of sexual violence. But thanks to UNPOL’s public awareness-raising campaigns, regular meetings with all local counterparts and training supported by local media, cases are now reported, and survivors are referred to legal, medical and psychosocial services to help them access justice and heal from the trauma.
“The difference is big. Community members now know that there is a desk and more people come to report cases. They also seek advice, family consultation, paternity claims and other issues facing women,” Nataliia added.
One of Atoch’s most recent successes was a case where the woman who had been abused and abandoned by her husband was left alone to feed and raise their 3 children, only to see him reappear and threaten her life and the lives of their children. Thanks to Atoch’s efforts, the case was considered by the Traditional Court in the victim’s favor, and she got a divorce — what used to be an impossible feat in Abyei.
“Women now feel more free. They start to realize that there is the way for them to stand up for their rights,” shared Atoch.
“Thanks to our efforts and the great readiness of individuals like Atoch, who inspires others and is greatly committed to her call of duty, the situation has started to change. Thanks to the efforts by UNISFA and partners and the incredible dedication of community stalwarts like Atoch, there is a shift in attitudes, says Nataliia from UNISFA. “The popularity of the desk confirms it,” she added.
Out of the 57 cases reported since 2020, all but one have led to conviction of the perpetrators. The last case is still under investigation.
But without peace and financial support for women like Atoch who volunteer their time to help other women, progress remains fragile.
“There is a long way for them to go, many obstacles to overcome, many things to learn, many issues to solve, including changing local mentality and mindsets. But they are on the right track,” Nataliia added.