Sudanese women demand justice

The systematic use of sexual violence along with torture, cruel and degrading treatment – such as the common use of flogging - continue to be one of the major security threats and tools of repression targeting women and communities all over Sudan. Amel Gorani reports on those who are daring to speak out

The use of rape as a weapon of war in Darfur caught the world’s attention due to its extensive coverage in the international media and reports by the UN and Sudanese and international ngos. Indeed, President Bashir along with a senior Sudanese government official and a Janjaweed militia leader have been indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity - including the crime of rape. However, what is less known is how the systematic use of sexual violence and other forms of gender based violence along with torture, cruel and degrading treatment – such as the common use of flogging -  continue to be one of the major security threats and tools of repression targeting women and communities all over Sudan.

The fact that conflict-related sexual violence constitutes a threat to peace and security, exacerbates situations of conflict and impedes peacebuilding and post conflict recovery, is well established and has been internationally endorsed through the adoption of the United Nations Security Council resolutions  1325, 1820, 1888 and 1889. The continuing  sexual violence restricts women and girls freedom of movement, access to education, employment opportunities, and severely reduces their ability to participate in public life and the political process.

A clearer picture of the problem is now emerging through the testimonies and reports compiled by ngos and UN agencies, which show that sexual violence in conflict is widespread, systematic, and is perpetrated by all warring factions. Government forces and affiliated militias bear responsibility for the largest number of atrocities.

In addition to the use of rape in the Darfur conflict, sexual violence has been widely perpetrated during other periods of political instability, ethnic clashes and humanitarian emergencies. For example, there were reports of many rapes which took place during the political violence that engulfed parts of northern Jonglei State and Upper Nile State as the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) attempted to flush out insurgents following the elections of April 2010, and Human Rights Watch  reported the arrest and beatings of women by the police in South Sudan over their dress style, as well as other unlawful detentions and sexual violence, including rape and harassment - not least of Ugandan women working in markets and bars in South Sudanese cities. The media has also carried reports about the sexual abuse and rape of female recruits in the South Sudan Army. The sexual violence that was inflicted on women and girls in South Sudan during the decades long civil war remains hugely under- documented and under-researched.

In the North, sexual violence including gang rape, forced removal of clothing, sexual slurs and insults of women activists has been repeatedly used by the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) to punish and terrorize female political opponents in urban centres like Khartoum. This trend has been especially visible in the wake of the anti-regime demonstrations led by youth groups in late January 2011, as documented by the African Centre for Peace and Justice Studies  

The draconian Public Order Laws are a major source of insecurity and abuse for women in Northern Sudan. These laws regulate a wide variety of activities in the public and private sphere ranging from licensing of businesses, prescribing women’s dress and appearance in public, to determining  “immoral acts” and unlawful mingling of men and women.  They are upheld by a special police and courts system that is given great latitude in interpreting the laws and is known for the use of violent tactics and summary justice. Thousands of Sudanese women have been subjected to cruel and inhumane punishments such as flogging as a result of these laws. The Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa (SIHA)  has made a submission to the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights detailing the extensive abuses and grave violations committed against women and girls in Sudan through the infamous Public Order regime. 

Breaking the silence on violence

There is a wall of silence in Sudan surrounding sexual violence. Such violence is rarely reported due to the near total impunity for perpetrators of sexual crimes, intimidation and humiliation of survivors by the authorities, stigma, social repercussions, fear of reprisals and even risk of being convicted of adultery if the victims fail to prove rape. Article 149 of the 1991 Criminal Act in Sudan conflates the crime of rape with zina (adultery). So women who report rape may risk being convicted of adultery if they can’t prove that the sexual act was non-consensual. However, this wall of silence is being slowly broken by the courageous testimonies of a number of sexual violence survivors, and the tireless work of women’s rights activists and Sudanese, regional and international organizations bent on fighting this heinous crime to the end.

Most recently, the widely publicized video testimony of Safia Ishaq, a political activist, who spoke out about her gang rape by three agents from the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) in Khartoum shone the light on the use of rape and persecution of political opponents by state security agents. Safia’s public testimony was widely supported in Sudan and she was applauded for her tremendous courage. However, Safia and her family faced intense intimidation and threats from the NISS on account of her testimony.  A group of political leaders and human rights activists who visited Safia’s family to show support after the incident were interrogated and arrested by the police.  

Speaking out about these crimes clearly disrupts the ability of the ruling party to continue its crimes of violence, intimidation and harassment against regime dissidents and activists without public embarrassment and scrutiny. Last December 60 women’s rights activists were arrested for participating in a peaceful demonstration organized by the “No to Women’s Oppression Coalition” that was protesting against the flogging of a woman whose public lashing made international headlines when it was publicized on YouTube.

Sudanese women are determined to speak out and demand justice and accountability. Recently at least 6 women activists provided testimonies - using their real identities - to the Africa Center for Justice and Peace Studies about the sexual violence and harassment they faced at the hands of state security agents. Such public accounts of sexual violence are hugely important as they give survivors a face and a voice that is powerful and hard to ignore. Most testimonies of sexual violence, especially those in the war zones, have been made anonymously or using pseudonyms for the reasons mentioned above.

Although the violence disproportionately impacts poor women from marginalized communities and ethnicities, those speaking out are primarily women who are educated and privileged, or are activists who have experience of public engagement and access to support networks. This situation highlights the enormous difficulties faced by women from marginalized groups to reveal and challenge their abuse without any form of support or backing.

Demanding justice and legal reform

Sudanese women’s and human rights groups have launched multiple campaigns to demand legal reform, the abrogation of the public order laws - and indeed all laws which are discriminatory towards women, not least article 149  of the 1991 Criminal Code on rape. They have lobbied the government repeatedly to sign and ratify the Convention on all forms of Discrimination against Women and to ratify the Protocol to the African Charter on the Rights of Women in Africa, and respect its obligation to defend women’s and girl’s rights in accordance with the international covenants that it has ratified. However, these pleas have either fallen on deaf ears in Sudan, or been met with opposition and senseless accusations refuting these legitimate demands as attempts to impose alien western norms on Sudanese society.

In light of this unresponsiveness, Sudanese women have also sought to use regional and international mechanisms to pressure the government into compliance. Their tireless efforts to seek justice and accountability and ensure equal protection for women under the law are a cause which all those who believe in equal dignity and rights for women and in the impossibility of creating a safe world without ensuring the security of women need to support.

One opportunity for cultivating such solidarity will present itself at the Nobel Women’s Initiative’s biennial  conference on Women Forging a New Security: Ending Sexual Violence in Conflict, May 23-25.  Women activists and scholars from all regions of the world will come together in Quebec to debate, exchange ideas and share strategies about how to end sexual violence in conflict and promote security. 

To read openDemocracy 50.50's full coverage of the conference click here  

About the author

Amel Gorani is a Sudanese women’s rights activist and international development specialist, currently based in the US