DARFUR STILL STANDS BETWEEN THE SPREAD OF COVID-19, ORGANIZED VIOLENCE, AND THE ABSENCE OF THE RULE OF LAW
Women in Beliel Camp in South Darfur – Photo Credit: SIHA Archives
“In the context of the crisis in Darfur, incidents of sexual violence are primarily targeted at displaced women and girls living in camps and peripheries of Darfur cities and towns .” In 2018, the UN and African Union joint mission in Darfur documented 122 cases of sexual violence against 199 people, including 114 children – 105 of which were girls .
Since the outbreak of the civil war in Darfur in 2003, the area has endured a relentless campaign of human rights abuses and violent attacks, including mass killings and systematic rape, implemented by the now-ousted Bashir regime. The Sudanese Transitional Government has done little in the year since the Sudanese Revolution to change the situation of women’s security for those living in Darfur.
The people of Darfur are still trapped in the same vicious cycle, where poverty, insecurity, and an absence of the rule of law enable sexual violence to proliferate. This situation has been exacerbated in recent months because of the diverse ways in which COVID-19 has strained the economy, healthcare system, and people of Sudan.
Over the past year, the transitional government’s officials have spoken often about making peace in Darfur a top priority. The transitional government has also endorsed the United Nations Declaration 1325 and published a plan on women, security, and peace building. These are all good gestures, however, the pain and agony that women in the conflict areas of Darfur continue to face is still a reality that deserves the utmost attention.
As of March 23rd, the Sudanese Transitional Government announced national measures to limit the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, including bans on public gatherings, an obligatory curfew, and inter-regional mobility restrictions. In Darfur, where most of the population is still displaced by war and whose daily lives are impacted by ongoing, armed tribal conflicts, COVID -19 lockdown measures have enabled the legitimisation of brute militias, militant groups, and the further militarisation of public spaces. These violent groups protect their power by subjecting outspoken women’s and human rights activists to threats, arbitrary arrests, and other methods of intimidation and oppression.
Most of the displaced women living in the Abu Shouk, Al Salam, and Rwanda camps and in Tawila town work in the informal sector selling food or tea, cultivating agricultural crops, or manufacturing and laying municipal bricks as construction workers. As informal laborers, the income and food security losses sustained by these women has been particularly severe. The absence of humanitarian support or employment safety nets continues to force women to go out in search of a livelihood, exposing them to the violence of militias and armed forces that roam the cities and villages of Darfur without accountability or oversight. According to data from the Hospital in El-Fashir, rape has increased by 50%, and the incidence of urinary fistula among women and girls due to gang rape and sexual violence has significantly increased. Despite this data, sexual violence in Darfur continues to be cloaked in silence and darkness due to the stigma and blame that can be weaponized against those who speak out.
All of these factors collude to hinder women’s access to justice, and to life-saving medical and psychological support services.
The peaceful transition to a democratic state does not and will not happen through an international peace mission alone. In Sudan, we can learn from the lessons of our neighbours across the Horn of Africa and Sahel region. International missions have no magic wand for granting sustainable and high-quality mechanisms for peace. Peace comes from within; by creating clear mechanisms for imposing state policies, and by increasing and enabling the institutions of the rule of law through the courts, police, and procuratorates. Moreover, peace negotiations, without the substantial and meaningful, involvement of women and communities affected by war, will not lead to peace. The perspectives of women displaced by the scourge of war must be given space as one of the drivers in the peaceful transition process.
Recognising the realities of the COVID-19 crisis, the high number of deaths of the elderly, societal panic, the inevitability of lockdown extension, the absence of a clear rule of law and clear mechanisms by the Sudanese government – despite good intentions – we at SIHA on the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict recommend that
- The Sudanese Government must invest in justice and law enforcement infrastructure as well as survivor support services in order to ensure that the legal frameworks for supporting survivors and holding perpetrators accountable are available, accessible, and fully functioning.
- The Sudanese Government must establish Darfur civilian regional governments and local legislative councils, as this is a crucial step toward ensuring the sustainability and fairness of justice infrastructures.
- The Sudanese Government must support the local-level civilian government to set clear security arrangements and disarmament programmes with firm deadlines.
- Internal mechanisms for justice/transitional justice mechanisms must be developed, and should be inclusive of the full diversity of Darfur civil society, women and youth in particular. These mechanisms must solicit and comply with demands from survivors of sexual violence for reparation.
- The Sudanese Government must ratify the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (Maputo Protocol), and should abide by Resolution 1325.
Without an inclusive, just, and fair approach to peace building, we will remain imprisoned by a wretched cycle of violence for decades to come.
 Sexual Violence in Conflict: Report of the Secretary-General. (March 2013). General Assembly Security Council. 67th Session. Agenda Item 33. https://www.refworld.org/pdfid/5167bd0f4.pdf
 Conflict-related sexual violence: Report of the Secretary-General. (March 2019). https://undocs.org/S/2019/280