Wednesday, 13 February 2008

Violence against women still a daily reality in Sudan

When Sudan first emerged into the evening news headlines, people around the world heard stories of conflict between the Northern, predominantly Muslim, regions and the Southern, predominantly Christian, regions of Sudan. In those horrific stories of warfare and civilian deaths, one story remained woefully silent—what happened to all the women? And what is being done today to protect these women from repeated violence and harassment across Sudan?

Three years after the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed between north and south Sudan, women living in the country are still treated like second-class citizens. Sexual violence within marriage is still common, female genital mutilation (FGM), a harmful traditional practice that often leads to infection, painful sexual encounters, and even death for young women, is still practiced, and rape is still a terrifying daily reality.

In many parts of Sudan, particularly the northern areas, streets are deemed as ‘men’s only’ areas. If a woman is seen walking or driving by herself, especially after dark, she becomes a target for harassment.

“If you resist sexual advances from men, they will ask you, ‘Then why are you out on the street?’ said Shaza Balla Mohamed, a Sudanese delegate at this year’s 3rd Africa Conference on Sexual Health and Rights in Abuja. “They assume that if you are out walking outside then you are looking for a man. It’s very dangerous.”

Mohamed and her colleague, Sharaz Magzoub, work for a civil society organization called Salmmah for Women Resources in northern Sudan. Their roles as advocates for women’s rights and the abolishment of FGM has put them on the government ‘black list’ as enemies of the government. But despite these obstacles they continue to educate others on strategies to end sexual violence against Sudanese women.

In his presentation to delegates at the 3rd Africa conference, Sharaz Magzoub spoke on “Sexual Violence in Darfur” and the crippling effect that female disempowerment has reaped on the whole of his country.

Since 2003, the Sudanese government has used mass rape as a systematic weapon of war to terrorize and subjugate entire communities at large. Though civil societies—such as MSF Holland and Human Rights Watch—have documented these calculated attacks on women at an international level, the Sudanese government continues to reject these claims as ‘anti-government propaganda’ made up by foreigners and ‘leftist’ spies. Many workers in foreign civil society organizations in Sudan are restricted by the government to the areas they work in, and don’t have the necessary resources to reach out to villagers on issues of sexuality and gender empowerment. Some civil workers have even faced deportation or jail sentences from the government due to the humanitarian projects they undertake.

Despite these challenges, many civil society organizations have succeeded in breaking through government barriers to provide psychosocial services for rape victims, report rape cases, train citizens in transitional justice, and carry out international crime court procedures. Because of this success Magzoub strongly advocates that donor agencies, both national and international, recognize the importance of civil society’s role in uplifting the lives of women in Darfur and around Sudan.

“We need more than laws to prohibit violence against women,” Magzoub said. In the case of FGM, Magzoub and Mohamed agree that the government should prohibit doctors from practicing the procedure; however, they said that the midwives or religious figures in the villages that practice the procedure would first need civil societies or the media to educate them on the dangers of FGM before they would be willing to stop. This calls for greater civil society presence in village areas and a revolution in the media.

In addition, Magzoub also recommended that the Comprehensive Peace Agreement be revisited and given legal reform to reflect women’s rights in the aftermath of the Sudan crisis. “We can’t continue to allow ignorance, culture, and religion to be excuses for violating women’s rights,” said Mohamed.

By Amanda Hale

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