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Op-Ed: More Accountability For Sexual Violence In Sudan Needed Now

A SURGE of unwanted pregnancies, barriers to sexual and reproductive health and rights due to sexual violence being used as a weapon of war is adding fuel to the fire in the civil war that erupted in Sudan in April 2023, making the plight of Sudanese women in the country even more desperate. Millions of them have been subjected to various forms of gender-based violence (GBV), perpetuating a cycle of vulnerability and oppression curtailing their livelihoods.

The war has had a devastating impact on women, girls and children with over 6.7 million mostly women being at risk of GBV.  Among the internally displaced population, over 1.5 million are women and girls of reproductive age, including nearly 150,000 who are currently pregnant. These displaced women and girls face significant protection and health risks, especially survivors of GBV, as well as pregnant and breastfeeding women.

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The conflict in Sudan has been labelled as a ‘war on women’. The UN human rights chief, Volker Türk, said that sexual violence, particularly rape, was a defining and despicable feature of the crisis.

Allegations of rape, forced marriages, sexual slavery and trafficking of women and girls, particularly in Khartoum, Darfur, Kordofan and other regions in Sudan continue to emerge. Reports of rape have been mainly attributed to the Arab-dominated Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and its allied militia; however, some have also been carried out by the Sudanese Army.

The ongoing clashes between the Sudanese Army and the RSF have plunged the country into chaos and terror causing more than 8.8 million people to flee their homes since mid-April 2023. The conflict has spread across the country, resulting in at least 15,580 reported fatalities, according to Armed Conflict Location and Event Data (ACLED).

Amid this chaos, sexual violence has emerged as a brutal weapon of war. Documentation by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Sudanese women’s advocacy group Together Against Rape and Sexual Violence, and the Strategic Network for Women in the Horn of Africa (SIHA) indicates a total of 318 Conflict-Related Sexual Violence (CRSV) cases being document between the period of mid-April 2023 and February 2024, with 81 per cent of the reported cases being perpetrated by men in RSF uniform and their affiliated militias.

Is it possible to eliminate violence against women if the international community has wilfully and deliberately refused to take a tough stance against sexual violence in conflict zones?

However, these figures are a vast underrepresentation of the reality due to significant challenges of obtaining information caused by the war including dangerous travel routes, poor internet and mobile networks, and overall instability.

Sexual violence has been pervasive throughout the history of conflicts in many parts of the world. The international community such as the UN, African Union and civil society have played a significant role in condemning sexual violations, heralding bold interventions that would enhance accountability for perpetrators and reparations for victims.

June 19, 2008 is a date that has been anchored in the annals of history for it is the day that the UN Security Council condemned sexual violence as a tactic of war and an impediment to peacebuilding. Each year the world observes the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict, a global effort to raise awareness of the need to put an end to conflict-related sexual violence and to honour the victims and survivors of such violence around the world.

Despite the significance of this day, however, conflict is increasing, and so does the risk of CRSV. For instance, according to the UN Secretary General’s report, there were more than 600 million women and girls living in conflict-affected areas in 2022, an increase of 50 per cent over the previous five years.

Sexual violence in Sudan is systematically employed as a weapon of war. It amounts to a genocidal campaign against the marginalised and vulnerable ethnic communities especially in Darfur.

In this region, which has been plagued by the same crimes and atrocities that happened two decades ago, thus perpetuating a cycle of violence, mass rapes are being reported. According to a special report by Reuters, Sudanese women from the Masalit tribe describe being sexually assaulted at gunpoint by the RSF and the Arab militias during attacks in the city of El Genina in West Darfur.

Eleven women interviewed by Reuters reported that men who attacked them wore either RSF military uniforms, or robes and turbans commonly worn by Arab militiamen. In addition, these accounts were corroborated by reports of rape by international organisations that pointed out specific targeting of Masalit women.

In another case, a 19-year-old girl told Reuters that as she was fleeing to Chad after witnessing her mother fall dead in the street after being hit by a sniper fire, four armed men in RSF uniform took her to a room on her own where they took turns raping her.

The high prevalence of sexual violence has led to a high number of forced and unwanted pregnancies due to lack of access to health facilities and service providers. Local women human rights defenders have also been subjected to rape and sexual violence to punish and terrorise them.

The escalating ethnically motivated violence in El-Fasher, North Darfur region, has reignited fears of possible genocide following the bloody conflict that gained global attention in 2003. The UN estimated that around 300,000 non-Arab Darfuri civilians lost their lives during that time at the hands of the Arab-dominated Sudanese government and Janjaweed militia (a precursor to the RSF). Despite widespread condemnation of the Darfur genocide, accountability for those responsible remains elusive.

The situation is catastrophic. With the institutional failure throughout the country, survivors are unable to seek justice. Their desperate situation is further exacerbated by social stigma, ostracism and acute scarcity of medical and psychological care.

The SIHA Network, a coalition of activists addressing women’s subordination and violence against women and girls in the Horn of Africa. has appealed to the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate and prosecute members of the RSF for their alleged widespread sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) against women and girls throughout this conflict.

The international community must recognise the gravity of sexual violence in Sudan and hold perpetrators accountable. Legal mechanisms, including the ICC, must play a crucial role in addressing these crimes.

The high levels of SGBV cases in Sudan are a serious impediment to the global goal of gender equality. Is it possible to eliminate violence against women if the international community has wilfully and deliberately refused to take a tough stance against sexual violence in conflict zones?

If respect for territorial integrity of a nation and non-interference in ‘internal’ matters override the need to condemn the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war, then gender equality is a distant goal that may not be realised globally.

As the world marks the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict much more international attention must be paid to sexual violence particularly rape as a war crime, crime against humanity, and an act of genocide.

Janet Sankale is with Africans for the Horn of Africa Initiative in Nairobi

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