The women and girls were violently raped in the northern city of Bentiu, according to a joint statement on Monday by head of the UN’s children agency, or UNICEF, Henrietta Fore; UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock; and the director of the UN Population Fund, Natalia Kanem.
They said, however, that the actual number of victims was far higher because the violence was severely underreported.
The statement condemned the “abhorrent attacks” and called on South Sudanese authorities to ensure that the perpetrators face justice.
Doctors without Borders (MSF) said in a report last week that 125 women and girls had been raped while walking to emergency food distribution centers set up by international aid agencies.
It said many of the victims had also been “whipped, beaten or clubbed with sticks and rifle butts” and robbed of their clothes, shoes, money, and the ration cards entitling them to food aid.
“In more than three years of working in South Sudan, I have never seen such a dramatic increase in survivors of sexual violence arriving at our programs looking for medical care,” said Ruth Okello, an MSF midwife in South Sudan.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, who described the attacks as “horrific,” urged all parties in South Sudan “to ensure the safety of civilians and address impunity for these crimes through investigation and prosecution of perpetrators.”
“These horrific acts are a distressing reminder of how, despite recent recommitments by South Sudan’s leaders to a cessation of hostilities and a revitalized peace agreement, the security situation for civilians remains dire, especially for women and children,” he said in a statement.
South Sudan, the youngest country in Africa, plunged into civil war two years after it gained independence from Sudan in July 2011. The brutal conflict has left nearly 400,000 people dead and millions of others displaced, a report said earlier this year.
A UN panel of experts warned in a report last month that there were “alarming levels” of sexual violence and human rights abuses in the country.
A UN report in October said armed men from opposition forces abducted women and girls — as young as 12 years — for commanders to take them as “wives.” It said that those who were chosen were repeatedly being raped and abused by other military figures as well.