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Sexual Violence Plagues Sudan Conflict


Sudanese families fleeing the conflict in Sudan's Darfur region, make their way through the desert after they crossed the border between Sudan and Chad to seek refuge in Goungour, Chad May 12, 2023.

WASHINGTON — The ongoing conflict in Sudan has resulted in thousands of lives lost and millions displaced. However, according to rights organizations, a disturbing trend has emerged — rampant sexual violence against women and girls in various parts of the country, including in Khartoum and Darfur.

Hala al-Karib, regional director for the Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa, SIHA, expressed shock at the early and extensive prevalence of sexual violence in Sudan's conflict.

Recounting a chilling conversation with a family head in Soba, on the southern outskirts of Khartoum, al-Karib revealed that women and girls were routinely subjected to rape in front of their families, while the men were held at gunpoint.

She described a reported pattern of predation on civilians allegedly by the Rapid Support Forces during the conflict, which has raged since mid-April.

"One of the most painful aspects of this heinous crime is that survivors were actually sexually assaulted by many, not just one person," al-Karib told VOA.

Her organization has documented nearly 75 cases of rape and sexual violence in Sudan's ongoing conflict, shedding light on the magnitude of the issue.

According to psychologist and trauma specialist Sulaima Ishaq, the documented cases of rape in Sudan's conflict represent only a fraction of the actual prevalence of this crime.

Ishaq, who directs the Combatting Violence Against Women unit within Sudan's Ministry of Social Development, said while her unit has recorded 61 cases of sexual violence, the numbers reported account for a fraction of the true scale of sexual violence occurring in conflict zones throughout the country.

She further asserted that all women in these zones, including Khartoum, the states of Darfur, and Kordofan, located in central Sudan, are subjected to sexual violence.

Drawing parallels to the Darfur war in 2003, Ishaq highlighted that in Khartoum, women, especially young girls aged 12 to 16-18, are predominantly targeted, particularly if they belong to "African ethnicities" — or non-Arab Sudanese tribes.

She pointed out that women from African ethnicities in Sudan, as well as refugee and immigrant women from South Sudan, Ethiopia, and Eritrea, have been specifically victimized by sexual violence. Notably, homes of refugees across the capital, Khartoum have been attacked, while impoverished families taking refuge in unfinished construction sites have also become vulnerable to sexual predation.

The scarcity of functioning hospitals around Khartoum poses additional challenges for survivors of sexual violence. Ishaq revealed that doctors, volunteers, community emergency rooms, and resistance committees are "doing the impossible," risking their safety to provide minimal support.

FILE - Women are interviewed under the shade of a tree outside at a camp for the internally displaced in al-Suwar, about 15 kilometres north of Wad Madani, on June 22, 2023.
FILE - Women are interviewed under the shade of a tree outside at a camp for the internally displaced in al-Suwar, about 15 kilometres north of Wad Madani, on June 22, 2023.

In the absence of access to abortion pills, Ishaq said, doctors prescribe contraceptives with varying doses based on victims' ages and provide antibiotics to prevent sexually transmitted diseases. Many victims are unable to leave their homes to access such services while psychologists like Ishaq struggle to offer psychosocial support to victims, resorting to phone calls whenever possible.

Identifying perpetrators

Eyewitness testimonies and accounts from victims consistently implicate Sudan's paramilitary RSF as the primary perpetrators of rape and sexual violence in the conflict, according to Ishaq.

RSF advisor and spokesperson Yousif Izzat denied the allegations against the paramilitary, dismissing reports of rapes by Ishaq's office as war propaganda by the army.

"The reports that you receive from sources related to the SAF or the institutions that it illegitimately controls at the moment should be investigated, as they are currently used as instruments of war," Izzat said in a written response to VOA, adding that "as in any war, there are violations that occur, and as far as the RSF is concerned, the leadership — at all levels — does not tolerate any violations."

Al-Karib noted that the majority of cases encountered by her organization, along with the testimonies of survivors and their family members, "clearly point to the RSF." Only two cases in North Darfur pointed to other armed groups, she added.

The United States government has also condemned "ongoing human rights violations and abuses and horrific violence in Sudan, especially reports of widespread sexual violence and killings based on ethnicity in West Darfur by the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and allied militias."

Sexual Violence Plagues Sudan Conflict

Amidst growing concerns, Sudan's army chief, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, denounced the crimes committed against the Sudanese people, attributing them to the RSF insurgency. In his Eid al-Adha speech, he stated that the paramilitary forces utilized "gangs" to violate homes, loot civilians' properties, and establish "murder, rape, and looting" as their trademarks.

In his own Eid al-Adha message, paramilitary leader Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo pledged to hold accountable any members within the RSF found guilty of committing rights abuses against civilians, emphasizing that such violations contradicted the laws governing the RSF and its leadership's instructions.

"Last week, the commander of the RSF ... formed a court-martial to try any RSF soldier who violates international humanitarian law," Izzat asserted to VOA.

Advocates have called on all perpetrators of violence to be held to account.

"It is unconscionable that Sudan's women and children - whose lives have been upended by this senseless conflict - are being further traumatized in this way," said Martin Griffiths, The U.N. Under-Secretary General for humanitarian affairs.

"What we are witnessing in Sudan is not just a humanitarian crisis; it is a crisis of humanity," he added.

Since the beginning of the Sudan's conflict in April, nearly 3,000 people have been killed and over 2.2 million displaced — 645,000 have fled across borders, according to the International Organization for Migration

AFP contributed content to this article