Darfur: no redress for rape

Grace Davies
8 April 2008

A Human Rights Watch report released yesterday delivered a stark reminder of the ongoing crisis of sexual violence in Darfur, and of the need to step-up pressure on the Sudanese government and international forces to address the problem effectively.

Five years in to the conflict in Darfur, and over two years after a government "national action plan" was set-up to deal with sexual violence against women, HRW concludes that not only does the problem persist, but it does so in a continuing "climate of impunity".

"The victims of these horrific attacks have little or no hope of redress in Darfur's current climate of impunity ... by failing to prosecute the perpetrators, the government is giving them a license to rape." - Georgette Gagnon, HRW, Africa

Similar to a recent report by US-based rights group Enough in neighbouring DRC, HRW states that much of the violence is perpetrated by the military; government forces and other militia.

Many of the recommendations from HRW also echo those of the Enough report - that cooperation and training of security forces is crucial in tackling an endemic problem that has largely grown out of a conflict situation, and that strengthening of the judiciary is essential in altering the culture of impunity that has evolved.

The report calls on the Sudanese government to:

  • Issue a presidential decree that rape and other forms of sexual violence by government forces and government-backed militia will be promptly investigated and prosecuted, and ensure that such a decree is enforced;
  • Bolster the justice sector's capacity to respond to crimes of sexual violence;
  • Train police and prosecutors in victim-sensitive approaches to handling criminal investigations, and ensure that properly trained female police investigators are deployed to police stations in Darfur;
  • Revise criminal laws on sexual violence to provide for attempted rape, and ensure rape victims are not exposed to prosecution for adultery.

It also calls on the UN/AU peacekeeping force UNAMID to deploy more highly-skilled and experienced female officers on the ground, and to continue and build on "firewood patrols" around Internally Displaced Persons camps and rural areas to protect vulnerable groups.

All of the recommendations here are sound, the report typically thorough, and the language unequivocal. However, on reading, and listening to the accompanying headlines, it is alarming in more ways than its focus on the immediate situation of the women of Darfur.

Rape and sexual violence in conflict has historically been viewed on an individual "spoils of war" level but the systematic use of rape as a weapon of war - now widely documented by Amnesty International and others - is a phenomenon that has only relatively recently been acknowledged. From Darfur to Bosnia, Rwanda, DRC and Bangladesh there are examples of rape being used as deliberate military strategy. The work of HRW and others in documenting ongoing human rights violations is invaluable, but surely it is the psychology of the perception of women's bodies as a site of control that must be addressed; only then can a preventative approach be used to really protect vulnerable women and girls. This is a point more forcefully made by Anne Marie Goetz and Joanne Sandler of Unifem in an openDemocracy article highlighting sexual violence as a security issue, and calling for women's greater involvement in conflict resolution:

"Sexual violence is not only a human-rights issue - it is a security issue. Even when the guns fall silent, sexual violence as a political strategy means that to live in the body of a woman or girl is to live in terror. The war and the threats to security are not over until the rapes stop."

Read the full report "Five years on: no justice for sexual violence in Darfur"

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