Addressing Sexual Violence against Women in Sudan


Can raising awareness help mitigate a human rights’ issue? And what can Muslim women do? Eren Cervantes-Altamirano ponders.

This picture taken on April 16, 2008 shows a Sudanese refugee sitting at a way-house in Juba, south Sudan, where refugees returning from Uganda, Central Africa Republic, Congo and other countries are cared before being repatriated to their respective homes. Tens of thousands of people have yet again been displaced from their homes at Abyei following an outbreak of violence between north Sudan's army and southern ex-rebels over the oil-rich region whos administration is bitterly contested between north and south Sudan. 'We have reports of tens of thousands of people moving east, south and west scattered in the bush', according to a UN source. AFP Photo / Tony Karumba
Still suffering in silence. AFP Photo / Tony Karumba

Last week, the Canadian organisation Nobel Women’s Initiative released its report on sexual violence against women in Sudan. Entitled Survivors Speak Out: Sexual Violence in Sudan[i] and presented in the Embassy of the Netherlands in Ottawa, Canada, among representatives of the Canadian government, Amnesty International and other organisations, the report brings attention to the conflict-related violence from which women in Sudan and South Sudan suffer – through the stories of some 20 Sudanese women.

According to the facts reported, there has been a rise in sexual violence against Sudanese women since the Islamist National Congress Party acquired power in 1989. The organisation points out that much of the situation has to do with enforcement of “Islamic” laws that prevent women from accessing justice, do not acknowledge rape and do not grant women and children any protection.

The report also quotes Sudan’s president Omar Al-Bashir’s comments on allegations of rape: “It is not in the Sudanese culture or people of Darfur to rape. It doesn’t exist. We do not have it.” Al-Bashir was accused by the International Criminal Court of genocide and war crimes in 2008; yet he continues to rule the country.

The report highlights terrifying stories of gang rape, kidnappings, police and army intimidation and above all, stories of fear and disillusionment. It provides examples of how religion and religious laws are misused by the state and rulers to engage in genocide. As journalists and non-government organisations (NGOs) are denied entry into the country and members of local organisations continue to be prosecuted, this report invites the readers to get involved with international initiatives and NGOs currently addressing the issue.

As a Muslim reader with a Latin American background, I felt uneasy reading this report for a number of reasons. First, it troubles me that in mosque settings, we are very quick to respond to political attacks perpetrated by Western countries against Muslim ones, but we rarely discuss how Islam and what passes for Sharia laws are misused to perpetrate crimes against humanity.

In addition, in many Muslim communities, we do not discuss sexual violence in general. It is still a taboo to talk about rape in conflict settings or rape in the context of marriage. For me, this is hard to understand because I see Islam as a force that stands against injustice, violence and anything that harms human beings.

We also fail to ask questions about the oppression of others. What does it mean to be a Sudanese woman in this setting? How does it relate to the oppression of other women in similar situations? What can Muslim women do to support Sudanese women suffering from sexual violence?

In addition, I was uncomfortable with the report’s overview of the international community. Through the report, it seems that international organisations are truly focusing on Sudan. However, even though funding is being provided by wealthy developed countries like the Netherlands, without being granted entry to the country, how are these funds being used to help Sudanese women?

As I read I kept wondering, how are Western countries helping (or not helping) the situation? Are there any political responses to human rights abuses? Or will this go down the same route as the 2011 Darfur famine, where countries around the world failed to respond quickly enough to prevent it or mitigate its effects?

But most of all, I was unimpressed by the lack of recommendations. The “What you can do” section at the end of the report focuses on what individuals can do to raise awareness and money, while encouraging countries to take action against Al-Bashir. Yet, I am still questioning, what can truly be done? The point is not to look for short-term solutions, but instead to implement sustainable measures to make sure that genocide and sexual violence are mitigated permanently.

I am sceptical of merely “raising awareness” because educating others does not necessarily entail collective action. I am also unsure that collecting funds (that are not going directly to Sudanese women) is the answer. And I am very sceptical about the International Criminal Court’s action against Al-Bashir, as very few leaders have been tried in international courts for crimes against humanity – including leaders of countries that claim to protect human rights.

What is the alternative? While I do not have the answer just yet, I believe that this is the point where Muslim women should brainstorm, bring forward their ideas and create social action. This is not something that can be resolved by one person – it calls for collective action.

[i] Nobel Women’s Initiative, ‘Survivors Speak Out: Sexual Violence in Sudan’, Nov 2013, available here

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