The ongoing sexual violence against the women of Darfur is a crime against humanity.
In the killing fields of Darfur, rape is a weapon of war. Tens of thousands of women and girls have been subjected to sexual violence as a deliberate means of humiliation and degradation.
The rapists know the immense shame their actions bring to the abused women, their children, their families and their communities. It is a form of violence that is sexually and emotionally devastating to the victims – all the more so because of the conservative cultural and religious mores of the Darfur region.
This Sunday is Human Rights Day. To mark the occasion, there is a second Global Day for Darfur ; this time focusing on sexual violence against women.
In London http://www.globefordarfur.org/events_details/london.html and many other cities worldwide, people will be highlighting the mass rape of Darfuri women and the urgent need for UN peace-keepers to help halt the violence, both physical and sexual.
Since the Darfur Peace Agreement in May 2006, the reported incidence of rape has increased. Implicated in most of these rapes are the Sudanese security forces, their allied Janjaweed militias, and police deployed to protect refugees. Women also report being forced to exchange sexual favours for desperately needed food and other essential items.
The survivors of rape remain burdened by life-long stigma in Darfur’s deeply traditional African and Muslim cultures. They are also rendered destitute if, as often happens, they are ostracised by their families and communities. Forced to bear the children of their rapists, their babies will often be treated as social outcasts.
Some rape victims who have become pregnant have been arrested and jailed for sex outside of marriage and for unlawful pregnancy. Since mid-2005, however, external pressure has influenced the Sudanese government to cut the arrests of rape victims. Nevertheless, the police still fail to act with due diligence in their treatment of rape survivors and in their investigation of rape cases. Mistreatment of rape victims by the police is widely alleged. This means sexual violence is massively under-reported. Survivors are aware there is virtually no chance that rapes will be investigated and the perpetrators prosecuted. Indeed, there has not been a single conviction for the rape of a displaced Darfuri woman.
The physical damage caused by rape is exacerbated by the fact that most women in the Darfur region have been subjected to female genital mutilation. For these women, rape is therefore more likely to result in medical complications, including internal bleeding, fistulas, incontinence and infection with sexually-transmitted diseases such as Hepatitis B and C and HIV. The vast majority of rape survivors are too ashamed to seek medical care. In any case, such care is rarely available or affordable.
Some sexually transmitted infections can render women infertile if left untreated. Being unable to bear children is a further degradation in societies where having children is part of the cultural expectation of women.
Witnesses to Janjaweed militia attacks on Darfuri villages record widespread rape, often of young girls aged nine to 14. In the last five weeks alone, more than 200 women have been sexually assaulted in and around Darfur’s largest displaced person’s camp, Kalma.
Because of guilt and shame, the victims rarely talk about their trauma. Most suffer alone and in silence. The true incidence of sexual violence is emerging only slowly, often long after the victim’s ordeal.
The reality of mass rape was confirmed by a UN Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) fact-finding mission to Darfur. It reported the large-scale rape of women and girls.
In an attack on 27 February 2004, in the Tawila area of northern Darfur, the UNCHR says: “seventy-five people were killed, and more than a hundred women and girls were raped-six of them in front of their fathers”.
A similar story is recorded by UNICEF. It identified “a very large number of rape cases, in one case targeting school girls and teachers, gang rape of minors by up to 14 men, abduction of children and women as well as killings of many civilians” in North Tawila. The town of Kailek was seized for 50 days by the Janjaweed. Women and men were separated, and 80 rapes were reported.
The mass rapes in Darfur have been among the most effective means to terrorise tribal populations, break their will, and drive them out of the region. The pro-government militias secure ethnic cleansing by sexual despoilation.
In most cases, the rapists get away with their crimes. Few are bought to justice. This creates a climate where sexual violence is increasingly is viewed as normal and the perpetrators are seen as untouchable – as beyond the law.
Under international law, the use of sexual violence as a tactic of war is considered a crime for which individuals, military chiefs and high state officials can be held accountable. The Rome Treaty, which established the International Criminal Court, specifies that such violence is a crime against humanity and a war crime.
How long must the women of Darfur wait before the international laws against sexual war crimes are enforced? If it was men who were being mass raped, would the UN have sat back and prevaricated for so long?