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First case brought against the Government of South Sudan for sexual violence against women

06 June 2019

In the latest edition of Increasing Access, A&O’s pro bono and community investment magazine, we hear how our support helped non-profit Legal Action Worldwide launch the landmark case

Legal Action Worldwide (LAW) is a non-profit network of human rights lawyers who provide legal assistance to individuals and communities that have suffered human rights violations in fragile and conflict-affected areas.

In December last year, A&O supported LAW in launching a landmark case against the Government of South Sudan for use of sexual violence by its army during the country’s six-year conflict.

This is the first ever complaint brought against the Government of South Sudan before the UN Committee on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in Geneva. It outlines the brutal sexual violence, slavery, torture and gang rape used against 30 women and girls during attacks on their villages and while they were attempting to flee the violent conflict between 2016 and 2017.

The 30 individuals represented by LAW include girls as young as 9 and 12 years old at the time of the attacks, plus a mother who saw two of her four children disappear while being gang raped and has not seen them since. The women and girls LAW represents are so frightened of reprisals from the Government and its agents that they have fled the country and are now living as refugees.

War crimes

Litigation associate Olga Owczarek and partner Mona Vaswani led the A&O team supporting LAW on the case: “The stories of what these women and girls have been through are horrific,” says Olga. “There are many more cases like this but, because of the level of conflict, limited evidence of these crimes has been collected.”

Antonia Mulvey is the Executive Director of LAW: “South Sudan is suffering from some of the worst sexual violence seen anywhere in the world and rape is routinely being used as weapon of war against the civilian population. Both the United Nations and African Union have stated that this amounts to war crimes and crimes against humanity by the Government and opposition security forces, as well as militia aligned to either side.”

Global foundation grant and pro bono support

A&O’s pro bono support for LAW followed an A&O Global Foundation grant of nearly GBP50,000 in 2017. Alongside compiling the complaint, the grant has supported a wider project to build the capacity of South Sudanese lawyers to take testimony from victims and witnesses on human rights violations, and collect evidence that meets international standards and is admissible in court.

“LAW has been working in South Sudan for five years and, to our knowledge and that of our partners, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, no one has been doing this kind of work specifically in the context of sexual violence,” says Antonia.

LAW published a high profile report in 2016, ‘Accountability for Sexual Violence Committed by Armed Men in South Sudan’, and has brought together experts from across the international development sector to look at how the Government can be held accountable.

Yet, despite an agreement to end the conflict in 2018, sexual violence continues. In November, Médecins Sans Frontières reported providing emergency assistance to 125 women and girls who were raped and beaten in just a ten-day period in November 2018.

“Our landmark case not only highlights the seriousness of the violations,” says Antonia, “but requests actions by the state to address the crimes. We’re hoping it will set important legal precedents too – for example, it includes an application for interim measures specifically to protect the names of all complainants. This will offer protection and safety to the survivors and witnesses of sexual violence in complaints submitted to CEDAW. As far as we know, these protections are not yet in place.

“This case is the first step on a long road to justice for all women and girls in South Sudan, and we very much appreciate A&O’s assistance on this project.”

Increasing access

This article is taken from A&O’s pro bono and community investment magazine, Increasing Access.

Also in this issue:

  • Helen Rogers, senior pro bono manager, and Aditi Kapoor, pro bono manager, explain how A&O lawyers are providing free legal advice in the UK in the context of drastic cuts to legal aid
  • We take a look back at the impact of A&O’s partnership with Amref Health Africa three years on
  • Read how A&O people in Belgium are helping to raise the aspirations of under-privileged young people
  • Head of pro bono and community investment in Hong Kong, Catherine Husted, and associate director, Edward Mackaness, report back on their time with our Global Charity Partner Hope and Homes for Children in Nepal

Increasing Access is published twice a year, with the next edition available in November. If you would like to receive future copies, please sign up here by emailing

We are also keen to hear your feedback about this issue – please email and tell us what you think.