North Africa, West Asia

In Sudan, women are still facing the deadly threat of the military

Women activists, journalists, artists and protesters remain at the forefront of the continuous struggle against the militarization of the state in Sudan.

Sudanese Women Rights Action (SUWRA)
5 October 2020
Women protesters in Khartoum, Sudan April 2019
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Ala Kheir/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved

Since July 2020 at least 30 women were injured or killed during protests and other incidents of violence around Sudan, all of them in the conflict areas of Darfur and the Nuba Mountains. At least 7 women were arrested or faced lawsuits for participating in public events or expressing their opinion in public. Women activists, journalists, and artists remain under threat by the military and its militias using their resources to shrink the public space and obstruct the rights to freedom of assembly and expression.

Following the revolution in 2019, Sudanese women, especially women activists who led and helped make the change were looking forward to a new era of freedom, peace and justice. One year after the revolution, the situation on the ground for women activists remains mostly unchanged despite notable amendments to laws and policies.

The power sharing deal that replaced the former regime has given the military and its militias like the Rapid Response Forces (RSF) formerly known as Janjaweed- a strong position to continue their policies of oppression and militarization of the state. These policies remain the most significant threat to the process of democratic transition in Sudan.

The singlehanded control of economic resources, the ongoing manipulation of the legal system and the continuous use of violence against civilians in conflict and non conflict areas has weakened the power of the civilian led government.

Military/Militia led threats and violence against women

The continuous reported incidents of violence against women protesters and the crackdown on peaceful protests in conflict areas, in addition to the army and police use of lethal weapons against peaceful protesters is an alarming sign of the deteriorating situation of freedom of assembly and expression in these areas in particular, and Sudan as a whole, one year after the revolution.

Freedom of expression has also been under attack by the new actions of the military and its militias to threaten online activists, especially women in an attempt to silence them. The military is using the former regime law framework and fundamental Islamist base to threaten women freedom of assembly and expression and close the public space for women activists.

Women activists, journalists, artists and protesters remain at the forefront of the continuous struggle against the militarization of the state in Sudan

Women activists and journalists, working on uncovering the corruption of the army and its militias and their control of massive economic sectors in gold mining and other sectors, reported to us threats on social media, and fears of lawsuits as a result of their work. Although some of these women activists and journalists live outside Sudan, they still receive threats especially after the military announcement that it will be taking legal action against all activists criticizing them inside or outside the country.

Women activists, journalists, artists and protesters remain at the forefront of the continuous struggle against the militarization of the state in Sudan. The control of the state resources and law enforcement by the military and its militias imposed growing obstacles for the women’s rights movement in Sudan. According to the constitutional document governing the country since August 2019, the defense and the interior ministers are selected by the sovereignty council which is currently led by the military.

Law enforcement forces take their orders from the military and militias. This is reflected in the continuous use of violence during crackdown on protests in the last year all over Sudan, with the deadliest records being in conflict areas.

Freedom of expression has also been under attack by the military and its militias using the newly amended Cyber Crimes Act. The leader of the RSF militia and the vice president of the military council known as Hamiditi, announced the intensified punishments sanctioned by the new law weeks before it was published, threatening to use it against all critics of his militia and its crimes.

Hamiditi’s militia is known for the use of rape as a weapon in Darfur and in the crackdown on the Khartoum sit-in last year. The new Cyber Crime Act has punishments that could lead to six years in prison and other heavy punishments for posting opinions or information on social media. This law is severely shrinking the space of freedom of expression for women and affecting their ability to protect the rights they gained during the revolution and beyond.

The protection and extended impunity of military, police and militia officers is hindering women and women activists’ access to justice. The abuse of power by many law enforcement officers was never investigated and perpetrators had managed to escape any form of accountability.

Documented violations

The Sudanese Women Rights Action (SUWRA) documented a number of serious incidents in the last 5 months, where the abuse of power and the increasing militarization of the state impose serious threats to women’s rights, peace and safety in Sudan.

On 1 September 2020, Nora Rihan, a tea seller in Kadugli in Southern Kordofan was shot dead by an army officer after she refused to serve him before others. The officer took refuge in the army base in the city, and police wasn’t able to arrest him to date despite the number of witnesses who saw the incident.

On 18 September, a young woman artist and activist was sentenced to two month in prison for chanting the revolution chants in a police station. Doaa Tariq, an artist along with her six colleagues have been sentenced under the charges of public disturbance and disruption of public safety. The group was arrested by police under suspicious circumstances during their rehearsal on 10 August under the charge of violating the COVID-19 curfew. Later, this charge was dropped in the court and the other charges remained.

During her interrogation at the police station, Duaa was slapped by a police officer who wanted to take her picture and she refused. She filed a complaint against the police officer but the complaint was never investigated or even followed up by the police department or the prosecutor.

The Sudanese army intelligence officers and the police arrested 31 people from a public event on 23 September in Abujbeiha city, in Southern Kordofan. Among the detainees there were 5 women peace activists. The public event which was organized in order to address the situation in the state of South Kordofan was attacked by the military intelligence officers who deemed the gathering illegal without permission from the army base leader of the city. The attacking force injured some of the participants and arrested over 30 among them who were taken to the army base.

In Nertiti in Central Darfur, woman protester Mias Abdu Alkareem was killed by the police while protesting against the continuous attacks by Janjaweed militias on civilians in the area. After repeated killings and rape incidents in the area of Nertiti, protesters took to the street on 10 September to demand protection and end to the violence. The police responded with extreme force using live ammunition and tear gas to crackdown on the protest, which led to the death of two people and serious injuries of three.

In the area of Mistiry in West Darfur, 9 women were killed and 18 injured in an attack on a peaceful sit-in followed by wide range attack on the town and villages around it on 25 July 2020. The militias who were described as belonging to the Janjaweed, attacked the peaceful sit-in and the area around it for several days before and the police and the army did not provide any protection to the civilians, including the women and children who were there.

In Khartoum following the 30 June 2020 protests, a young woman protester was subjected to threats of lawsuits by army officers for reciting a poem that went viral on social media during the protests criticizing the army.

On 18 July, the army issued a statement announcing it is taking legal action against activists and journalists who might ‘insult’ the army online. The army appointed a legal commissioner to file cases against those activists inside and outside Sudan based on the so called Cyber Crimes Act which was recently amended with increased criminal punishments that could lead to up to six years in prison for a social media post.

The abuse of power by many law enforcement officers was never investigated and perpetrators had managed to escape any form of accountability

During the COVID-19 lockdown, between April and 7 September , Sudanese law enforcement used the lockdown to increase their strangle hold on people’s freedom of expression and assembly. According to the Sudanese Doctors Committee, at least 5 female doctors had been attacked by officers in the military, RSF and police on checkpoints or during duties all over Sudan. In four of the documented cases the perpetrators were not held accountable.

What needs to be done?

  • The reported violations reveal the urgent need for structural reforms in law enforcement as well as the military and security forces in Sudan as stated by the constitutional document.
  • Protection of women from violence, and respect for women’s rights should be one of the top priorities for such reforms.
  • The legal system inherited from the former regime must be reconstructed to comply with women and human rights and to ensure full access to justice for women and an end to impunity for the military, militias and law enforcement when it comes to Sexual and Gender Based Violence.
  • Freedom of assembly and expression must be protected under all circumstances, especially in the process of this transition.

Sudanese women and women activists in particular are on the frontlines of the continuous struggle against militarization and Islamization of the state to protect their rights and freedoms. The civilian-led transitional government is facing imminent risks as a result of the growing control of the military over economic resources and the security sector. This reality has weakened the government’s ability to implement its goals.

Women’s lack of access to information, resources and decision-making positions after the transition is blocking their efforts to contribute to ending violence against women sponsored by state actors. Although the constitutional document granted 40% participation for women in the parliament and supposedly in all traditional institutions, the reality remains far from this percentage.

Out of the 18 recently appointed civilian state governors, only two are women. One of these women governors from the river Nile state reported lack of cooperation and accused the army of refusing to obey her orders as a governor of the state.

The civilian-led government and women who are leading the change on the ground are in need of major support to successfully complete the process of transition. The international community must work strategically with the civilian-led government and women’s rights groups and all relevant actors in order to make sure women’s rights are protected and the role of the military in the transition is not hindering the democratic change in Sudan.

This article was originally published by SAWRA

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