|Reports of women raped during militia
raids or while seeking supplies are widespread in the Darfur conflict,
yet Sudan's government has denied it occurs and prosecuting the
crime has remained virtually impossible in the Muslim country.
"It is not in the Sudanese culture or people of Darfur to
rape. It doesn't exist. We don't have it," Sudanese President
Omar al-Bashir said in an interview with NBC in March.
the U.N. Human Rights Council on June 11 released recommendations
on how the government should respond to the problem, including
publishing a national action plan, reforming the legal system,
and warning armed forces and militias under government control
that any form of sexual violence is prohibited.
While the Sudanese government agreed to all but a few of the
recommendations, the real indicator of change will be if they
are implemented over the coming months.
Rape in conflict
Rape has been employed as a weapon of war by all sides
in Darfur, but the Janjaweed militia, an Islamic army allegedly
supported by the Sudanese government, has reportedly conducted
the most widespread and systematic attacks.
Aid workers in the region say they have witnessed both attacks
and the fallout from how sexual violence is permeating communities.
Former head of the Doctors Without Borders mission in southern
Darfur Vanessa Van Schoor said one victim, who was impregnated
through rape, starved herself to death rather than face the shame
of people knowing what happened to her. Some women in the conflict
do take care of their children born of rape, but these children
will be a test of how communities will deal with the legacy of
the crimes, she said.
Rape is committed with a sense of impunity in this conflict and
victims find little recourse, regional observers say.
Sudan requires four male witnesses be willing to testify in order
to prosecute any sexual assault. Married women who come forward
also put themselves at risk of being found guilty of adultery,
said Madeleine Rees, head of the Women's Rights and Gender Unit
for the U.N. High Commission for Human Rights.
Victims need to live in a secure environment and feel protected
if anything is to change, according to Rees.
"A woman who is a survivor of rape who has been stuck in
an [internally displaced persons] camp for years and is constantly
subjected to attack ... the chances of her coming forward to testify
under these circumstances are slim," said Rees.
to the social repercussions and fear of reprisals, even the process
of documenting the extent of rape has proved extraordinarily difficult.
U.N. workers say they reported 2,500 rapes in Darfur in 2006,
but aid groups treating rape victims fear they are seeing only
a small fraction of the violations.
Other reports by aid organizations have been focused on more
contained areas. The International Rescue Committee reported last
year that 200 women were sexually assaulted over five weeks near
Darfur's largest displacement camp, Kalma.
Because of the stigma attached to rape, victims are often not
willing to come forward even for medical care.
"No culture changes quickly," said Lynn Fredriksson,
Africa advocacy director for Amnesty International. "In this
particular culture men may feel that women who are sexually violated
are no longer clean or fit for marriage."
While women are hesitant to disclose rapes, one of the signs
of distress in these Muslim communities is that the men are so
willing to talk about the crime.
It was one of the first things men would say when speaking one
on one with researchers, according to Jennifer Leaning, a public
health expert and Harvard University professor who researched
the effects of sexual violence in Darfur in 2004.
"They would say 'Early in the morning the Janjaweed came
over the hills and began attacking our homes and raping our women,'"
Leaning said. "They didn't linger, they didn't intervene.
The story had already spread throughout Darfur that the men would
be killed. The time that they took to leave was covered by the
raping of the women."
Obstacles for aid organizations
The work of aid groups trying to address the problem
of sexual violence has been complicated by government restrictions
and impeded by continued violence in the western region of Sudan.
Two officials from Doctors Without Borders working in Sudan were
detained briefly in 2005 after the release of a report on sexual
violence, based on more than 500 rape cases the organization saw
over five months in south and west Darfur.
The Sudanese authorities accused the organization of crimes against
the state, publishing false reports, spying and undermining Sudanese
society. The consequence of the report was that it "jeopardized
the whole program," said Van Schoor.
Some humanitarian groups that speak out about issues such as
rape have been denied entry to Sudan. Amnesty International has
not been allowed in since 2005, and now works outside the country
at internally displaced camps and refugee camps in Chad.
The Sudanese government signed an agreement with the U.N. in
March pledging to ease restrictions on aid workers in Darfur and
to accelerate the issuing of visas and travel permits.
But U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte reported problems
persist after a visit to Sudan in mid-April.
"The denial of visas, the harassment of aid workers and
other measures, have created the impression that the government
of Sudan is engaged in a deliberate campaign of intimidation,"
Malik, a spokesperson for the Sudanese Embassy in Washington,
D.C., said the government is following through on the deal and
rebuffed the criticism.
"We made an agreement with the U.N. in regards to the aid
workers so we don't comment on any statements," Malik said.
Fewer and fewer groups are working in the region because of security
problems as well. The aid organizations that do remain walk a
fine line between political groups and militia factions in order
to keep operating and providing aid.
"There are probably about 20 different groups now, there
are no clear frontlines anymore," said Van Schoor. "You
can negotiate access into a certain areas and if it switches sides
what you negotiated no longer holds."
The sexual violence also has heightened tensions between ethnic
groups, Amnesty International researcher Arnaud Royer said. At
the beginning of May, while Royer was visiting an IDP camp in
Chad, a women was attacked at the outskirts of the camp. The perpetrators
were Arab, but were not from the area.
"The administration was not there, no one was there to explain
to the population what happened," Royer said. "The blame
was put on an Arab community near the camp."
Prosecuting on an international level
While the situation continues to deteriorate and has
threatened to spread across borders, some promising advances are
showing up in the international court. The International Criminal
Court issued warrants in May for two men accused of war crimes,
The recognition of rape as one of the crimes is significant,
said Janet Benshoof, president of the Global Justice Center in
New York. She said prosecuting war crimes under international
law has produced the most advances for women over the past 20
"It opens a space to make enforceable law for women, that
trickles down to domestic policy," said Benshoof.
Rees warned that although the message that rape is not being
ignored is an important step, expectations for what it means for
Darfur victims should be realistic.
"The justice is going to seem a little more remote and there
has to be an understanding that that is how the system is going
to work," Rees said. "It's not going to be able to prosecute
thousands of men for rape."
But "the fact that we are now addressing [rape] as a war
crime is actually huge progress," she said.