When heavy fighting broke out in Sudan’s capital Khartoum between the regular army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces in mid-April, some of the staff of the private women’s university in Ahfad decided to leave their residences in the institution’s compound and flee to safer places. However, they left behind a group of women workers, many of whom were Ethiopian migrants. Soon, paramilitary forces were deployed in the area and, as in the rest of the capital’s neighborhoods under their control, they began to loot homes and sow terror among civilians. When they arrived at the university premises, they found the group of women who had been abandoned there, trapped.
What happened then remains unclear, in part because the university denies any wrongdoing. But Hala al Karib, regional director of the Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa (SIHA), says they have documented the facts and claims that the women were gang raped and beaten with no one able to intervene.
The Ahfad University workers’ case, which happened in the early stages of the fighting, was one of the first warning signs of the serious consequences that the outbreak of war in Sudan and the deployment of the much-feared Rapid Support Forces would have on the lives and safety of women in the country.
The Unit to Combat Violence against Women and Children, affiliated with Sudan’s Ministry of Social Affairs, has already documented 49 cases of sexual violence since the beginning of hostilities. Of these, 25 have occurred in the western region of Darfur and 24 in Khartoum. The main perpetrators are members of the paramilitary forces.
The unit warns, however, that these figures are only the tip of the iceberg. “Cases are increasing every day and we can’t keep track of everything,” says the unit’s director, Sulaima Ishaq. “We know the numbers could be much higher, and what we are documenting only represents 1-2% of what is actually happening in Khartoum,” she adds.
One of the main reasons why the vulnerability of women and girls in Sudan has increased with the fighting is the insecurity that prevails in public spaces. And because the scarcity of basic products and services, such as food and water, forces them to go to places they do not know well and where they are more exposed to attacks. Many cases of sexual assault have been documented in Khartoum’s suburbs. And those who flee the city altogether also face great risks when they are traveling and in the temporary shelters where they stay.
It is always women who pay the price for a war waged by men”Unit to Combat Violence against Women and Children director Sulaima Ishaq
Sexual assaults against women in Sudan have been prevalent for years, especially in the country’s peripheral regions, such as Darfur, which have experienced high levels of internal violence. In Khartoum, sexual violence against women has also been a constant since the popular revolution that toppled former dictator Omar al-Bashir in 2019. And the most serious cases of such crimes have coincided with peaks of political violence.
But the outbreak of fighting between the army and the Rapid Support Forces has heightened the vulnerability of women and girls. “Not a day goes by that we don’t document new cases, and I think the longer it goes on the greater the numbers will emerge,” Al Karib says. “It is very unfortunate that they do not form part of the [majority of] abuses that are [reported],” she adds.
In Khartoum, of the 24 cases of sexual violence documented to date, 18 were perpetrated by men wearing Rapid Support Forces uniforms and took place in areas of the capital that they control, according to Ishaq’s team. Three others have been attributed to criminal gangs that are taking advantage of the situation to spread terror and carry out robberies and assaults. The remaining three perpetrators have not been identified.
For its part, SIHA has documented at least one case of paramilitaries whom, according to Al Karib, took over a mother and her daughters’ home and forced them to cook, wash clothes and do whatever they were asked for more than a week until the women managed to flee. The organization is also aware of the abduction of several women in Khartoum, and the expert notes that, unlike some men, the vast majority of them have not reappeared.
The situation is similar in Darfur. Most of the testimonies in the 25 cases of sexual violence documented by Ishaq’s unit stated that the perpetrators wore paramilitary uniforms and drove around in converted pick-up trucks. SIHA has also documented at least one case in which the victim of the assault pointed to the involvement of members of the rebel group led by Darfur Governor Minni Minawi. In the strategic town of El Obeid, sandwiched between the states of Khartoum and Darfur, SIHA is aware of at least one other case of sexual assault in which the perpetrator was from military intelligence.
“The current situation has greatly increased the vulnerability of women,” says Niemat Ahmadi, the chairwoman of the Darfur Women’s Action Group, who stresses that some cases of sexual assault in Darfur could also involve members of militias (mainly Arab tribes) aligned with the paramilitaries.
The collapse of the health system in Khartoum and Darfur, and of the institutions responsible for responding to cases of violence against women, is also making it very difficult to provide support to victims. It is also forcing some women to have to travel long distances to receive medical and psychosocial assistance, and the care centers that remain operational are suffering from increasing pressure and shortages of supplies. “Services are provided based on an impossible procedure; it is a difficult and unpredictable journey in this situation,” Ishaq laments. “For women in Khartoum and Darfur, it is a very alarming situation; it is always women who pay the price for a war waged by men,” she says.
More male violence
The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) has warned that in parallel they are receiving more and more reports of domestic violence, and consider that the number of women in need of prevention and response services for this type of violence has increased by more than one million people to 4.2 million. “Restriction of movement further aggravates tensions over social conditions and the ability to earn a livelihood, leading to an increase in domestic violence,” warns Sakaue Akiko, the coordinator of UNFPA’s gender-based violence sub-sector in Sudan.
Against this backdrop, and in addition to continuing to pressure the warring parties to end hostilities and allow the entry and distribution of humanitarian aid, organizations active in this field are calling on the international community to scale up their support to local groups that are trying to fill the gap with very few resources.
“Local organizations are playing a critical role in providing life-saving gender-based violence services on the front lines,” notes Akiko. “Additional funding and training are urgently needed for local organizations and networks, and in particular for those of women working on the front line,” she adds.
For Al Karib, the international community should also be more forceful with the warring parties, and put accountability at the heart of its action in Sudan. “Sexual violence, looting and war crimes have been going on in Darfur and parts of [the southern region of] Kordofan for 20 years,” she says. “When you allow this level of impunity, all you do is embolden criminal groups. Look now how relaxed and confident they are.” And she concludes: “They hold the international community’s ability to demand accountability in disdain because it has simply never happened.”
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