In March 2003, after decades of tension, fighting erupted in Sudan’s western Darfur region between Sudanese government forces and rebel groups such as the Sudanese Liberation Army and the Justice and Equality Movement. Over the next few months, tens of thousands of Darfuris fled. Government troops and allied militia forces, called the Janjaweed, attacked villages and internally displaced persons (IDP) camps, systematically raped women, and murdered whole communities. To ensure mass destruction, forces burned homes and poisoned water wells. Some analysts consider the conflict to be an attempt by the Arab-identifying majority to destroy the “African” minority.
Meanwhile, other areas of Sudan have experienced unrest. After much tension between the north and south of the country, the people of southern Sudan voted in January 2011 to secede. In July 2011, South Sudan officially declared its independence as a new nation. Political analysts believe the Sudanese government had hoped that international attention would be diverted by peace talks with former rebels in South Sudan, allowing it to quell the Darfur rebel movements with quick, systematic military action. But although the nascent country may have edged its way into headlines, atrocities continue elsewhere. And compared with other areas of Sudan, Darfur suffers from the most systematic rape, due to the ease with which soldiers can target women in Darfur’s IDP camps.
Sudan’s government has used profits from oil wealth in various parts of the country, including areas in the Nuba Mountains and in South Sudan, to fund its military attacks in Darfur. "Oil revenues account for a majority of Sudanese government income, and therefore are instrumental in financing genocide,” according to a 2006 report from Yale University. While the mass murder and rape in Darfur has been funded largely from oil in other Sudanese regions, Bloomberg reports that oil has recently been tapped in Darfur itself, with additional exploration studies being carried out in other parts of Sudan. In 2009, the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir for war crimes, making al-Bashir the first sitting head of state to have a warrant against him by the court.
How Sexualized Violence Is Used as a Weapon of War
To destroy communities and families: Rape is used to terrorize and break down social structures, causing people to flee their homes and surrounding areas and women to be scorned by their families. Following rape, women are also sometimes made to build their own huts outside the “family compound,” according to a report from Médecins Sans Frontières.
To degrade and terrorize women: This is part and parcel of destroying communities, families, and social structures. Rape is meant to leave a permanent mark on women, tearing them from a sense of security, even within their own bodies.
The U.N. defines ethnic cleansing as “a purposeful policy designed by one ethnic or religious group to remove by violent and terror-inspiring means the civilian population of another ethnic or religious group from certain geographic areas.” We are using the term here because ethnic cleansing not only makes women subject to outright murder, but also controls the threat of their bodies as the means of reproduction. For instance, women have been raped in order to occupy "inferior" wombs with "superior" sperm, or forced to have abortions or sterilizations (as have men of "inferior" groups) in order to end future reproduction. In some conflicts, women are also subject to the sex-specific political torture of forcing them to bear the child of their torturer in order to break their will.
To increase food insecurity: At most IDP camps in Darfur, rations do not provide enough to eat. But when women try to plant crops near the camps so as not to rely solely on international aid—or, more commonly, when they search for firewood near the camps—they are raped and thereby prevented from cultivating or even cooking their own sources of food. Some NGOs have tried to improve policing and IDP camp cooking supplies, but sexualized violence continues to destabilize access to food.
Patterns of Violence
- Primarily, Sudanese government forces and the Janjaweed paramilitary commit rape, according to United to End Genocide, a Washington-based organization dedicated to ending genocide worldwide, and other groups. Therefore, those who identify as being of Arab descent are perpetrating sexualized violence against those considered non-Arab or “African.”
- A high percentage of reported rapes take place while women and girls are on long walks to procure firewood and water to bring back to their refugee camps or villages. It is considered safer for women to go out at night as they are actually more likely to be targeted while searching for wood during daylight hours. (Militias usually shoot men dead if they attempt to leave the camps.) This is such a significant problem that some organizations have tried to create a lesser need for firewood and water through more efficient wood-burning stoves and better water pumps at IDP camps. A March 2005 Physicians for Human Rights report states that 82 percent of the women who came to them for treatment after being raped reported that the assault took place while they were “pursuing their ordinary daily activities” such as gathering wood or water.
- Rather than kill women after raping them, many of the rapists purposely keep women alive following the ordeal, even marking them with wounds, knowing that women will not be accepted by their families or considered “viable” to marry; however, women who do not comply are usually killed.
- Some men are forced to commit rape by their superiors. While there are a few soldiers who report that they tried to resist, they can be killed if they do not follow orders.
Experts are extremely reluctant to provide estimates of the number of women and girls raped—even more so than with other regions in conflict. No number other than “thousands” is available at this time. According to United to End Genocide, the main reason this already underreported crime is especially underreported in Sudan is that women have learned the hard way not to speak out: The government-sanctioned perpetrator often strikes again after a woman goes public. However, the organization says that rape was, and continues to be, much more of a problem in Darfur than in other regions of Sudan and now South Sudan. Whereas rape is used sometimes when forces invade a village, its systematic use is largely limited to the areas around refugee/IDP camps in Darfur. In South Sudan, displaced persons tend to flee into the bush; there aren’t camps around in which to target women. And according to a 2009 U.N. report, sexualized violence in Darfur has spilled over into Chad, where there are additional refugee camps.
Cultural Gender Attitudes
United to End Genocide’s Shannon Orcutt describes a Darfuri woman she works with who told her that women used to be “looked to as leaders within the community”—and that this is why women are being especially targeted. Orcutt says that women are now excluded from almost all peace processes, and that this marginalization comes not from the communities but from outside humanitarian and peace-building groups that go to the men for information and leadership.
Orcutt adds that many Darfuris she has interviewed have told her that rape didn’t really occur before the conflict, although it’s possible that this is a rosy view of the past. And, says Orcutt, one woman working for UNAMID, an African Union/U.N. hybrid operation, reported that young teenagers of Arab descent “would target even young African-descent women just because they had seen this before” in the current conflict. This sort of sexualized violence—aimed at particular ethnic groups or otherwise—seemingly did not happen to the same extent before.
Rape victims must withstand threats of violence from their own families, as seen in this testimony from a May 2009 Physicians for Human Rights report called "Nowhere to Turn”:
When I got back to my brother’s house, I told him what had happened. My brother said to me, "If you stay in my house, I’m going to shoot you (to kill you)." After that, I was afraid and I came to Farchana. My mother doesn’t speak to me.
The violence of rape can force a pregnant woman’s body to abort her baby. At the time of an attack on one woman, which was reported by Physicians for Human Rights, the woman was eight months pregnant. From the same report:
I was raped vaginally by three men in front of my children. The children were forced to witness the rape.… One of the Janjaweed pushed me to the ground. He forced my clothes off and raped me. When they shot my father, they saw I was a little girl. I did not have any energy or force against them. They used me. I started bleeding. It was so painful. I could not stand up.
I was really suffering. The next day I gave birth to a dead baby.
This testimony of a Sudanese man in Darfur was recounted in a 2006 United Nations Population Fund briefing paper:
In February 2004, I abandoned my house because of the conflict. I met six Arabs in the bush. I wanted to take my spear and defend my family, but they threatened me with a weapon and I had to stop. The six men raped my daughter, who is 25 years old, in front of me, my wife, and young children.
One woman from Darfur told Amnesty International in 2004:
I was with another woman, Aziza, aged 18, who had her stomach slit on the night we were abducted. She was pregnant and was killed and they said, "It is the child of an enemy."
- Rape survivors are stigmatized and sometimes so shunned by their relatives and communities that they are forced to build their own huts and live separately from their families, according to a 2005 report by Médecins Sans Frontières. Physicians for Human Rights reported in 2009 that some relatives even threaten to kill survivors.
- Women suffered and continue to suffer forced pregnancies due to rape. A 2004 Amnesty International report cited a commonly held belief in Sudan that causes further pain to women who had been raped: Many Sudanese believe unwanted sex cannot make a woman pregnant. So if she becomes pregnant, it was not through rape. If she is unmarried and chooses to rejoin her community, the community will not accept her child. Therefore, to go home, she must reject her own child.
- In addition, pregnancy outside of marriage is illegal in Darfur, leading to the arrest of women who become pregnant through rape, according to Médicins Sans Frontières.
- Along with all the other problems that come with raising a child born of sexualized violence, these women face raising a child that looks “light-skinned” or “Arab,” thus marking them as products of rape. One PBS “News Hour” report tells of a pregnant victim who “starved herself to death rather than face the shame of people knowing what happened to her.”
- Sexualized violence has become more prevalent not just in Darfur but in Chad, where many Darfuris have fled in the past few years. Women who have been raped or vulnerable to rape in Sudan are sometimes attacked once more in and around camps in the neighboring nation. Though rape is largely perpetrated by government soldiers and their proxy militia, the Janjaweed, rape is now becoming more prevalent among civilians.
- Because women are often targeted while procuring water, firewood for cooking fuel, and space to cultivate crops near refugee camps, rape increases food insecurity for women and their families.
- Experts have been unable to determine clearly whether HIV rates have risen due to rape in conflict. A recent epidemiological study found that there is “insufficient evidence” that HIV transmission increases either during conflict or in refugee populations. Published in The Lancet in 2007, the study analyzed data from Democratic Republic of Congo, southern Sudan, Rwanda, Uganda, Sierra Leone, Somalia, and Burundi. Researchers report that although rape may increase an individual survivor’s risk of contracting disease, there are not enough reliable data to show that systematic rape raises the overall prevalence of HIV in a given country. Previous studies may have been conducted poorly, or may have been skewed by geographical access restricted to urban areas with higher disease rates, according to the authors. More time-sensitive information needs to be gathered in countries experiencing conflict, they concluded.
President Omar al-Bashir is the first sitting head of state issued an arrest warrant—on 10 counts of war crimes—by the ICC. While indicted, al-Bashir has avoided arrest by traveling only to countries that will not deliver him to the ICC, such as neighboring Chad. The warrant includes language that considers that the government of Sudan’s forces "subjected, throughout the Darfur region, (i) hundreds of thousands of civilians, belonging primarily to the Fur, Masalit, and Zaghawa groups, to acts of forcible transfer; (ii) thousands of civilian women, belonging primarily to these groups, to acts of rape; and (iii) civilians, belonging primarily to the same groups, to acts of torture."
(Michele Lent Hirsch/published on February 8, 2012)
EDITOR'S NOTE: In the second bullet point of "Patterns of Violence," the 82 percent figure was misattributed to Médecins Sans Frontières. The report was, in fact, by Physicians for Human Rights.