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Darfur: Women’s Bodies Are Being Used As A Tool Of War

This picture taken on September 1, 2023, shows a view of destruction in a livestock market area in al-Fasher, the capital of Sudan's North Darfur state. The conflict between Sudan's army under General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) commanded by Mohamed Hamdan Daglo spread in late August 2023 to North Darfur state, with at least 27 localities burned down by the RSF and allied Arab militias, according to the Humanitarian Research Lab at the Yale School of Public Health. (Photo credit: AFP via Getty Images)


On November 3, 2023, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) expressed concerns about the dire situation of women and girls in areas controlled by the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) in Darfur, who are being “abducted, chained and held in inhuman, degrading slave-like conditions.” The reports follow the escalation in fighting between the Government’s Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and RSF and heightened inter-communal tensions in the region. More than six months ago, the conflict between SAF and RSF plunged the country into a brutal civil war resulting in thousands of people being killed, more than 5.7 million displaced, and around 25 million having to rely on humanitarian aid. While the parties are meeting in Saudi Arabia for peace talks, news from the region adds to the urgency of putting an end to the hostilities.

In its reporting, the OHCHR indicated that survivors, witnesses and other sources suggested that over 20 women and girls have been abducted, with the estimate being conservative. Furthermore, the OHCHR reported on new cases of conflict-related sexual violence in Darfur. Following the resumption of clashes between SAF and RSF on October 26, 2023, in Nyala (South Darfur), Zalingei (Central Darfur), El Fasher (North Darfur), and El Geneina (West Darfur), civilians have been heavily impacted, with thousands of people displaced, many killed or wounded. As the OHCHR stated, “As of Thursday, more than 50 incidents of sexual violence linked to the hostilities have been reported to the joint OHCHR-UNITAMS (the United Nations Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan) office in Sudan, impacting at least 105 victims – 86 women, one man and 18 children. Twenty-three of the incidents involved rape, 26 were of gang rape and three were of attempted rape.” Thirty-seven of the confirmed incidents of sexual violence have been attributed to men in RSF uniforms, eight to armed men affiliated with the RSF, two to men in unidentified uniforms, and one to the SAF.

UNITAMS, a UN special political mission established to provide support to Sudan during its political transition to democratic rule, raised concerns over the escalation of hostilities in Darfur and its impact on civilians. UNITAMS called upon all parties to abide by international human rights and humanitarian laws, including ensuring the protection of civilians.

The reports of conflict-related sexual violence are not new. On October 25, 2023, the Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa (SIHA) published a report on the issue of rape and sexual violence since the outbreak of war in Sudan on April 15, 2023. It emphasized that “Reports from Darfur and accounts by activists speak to ethnic targeting, particularly targeting the Masalit tribe. Many survivor accounts describe women being raped with their families forced to watch. Many parents have lost their lives defending their daughters, and women have also been killed for resisting rape.” The report further added: “Our records show that as of early October, the prevalence of sexual violence committed by the RSF continues to escalate significantly. This indicates that soldiers on the ground are becoming emboldened to commit sexual violence crimes, and this is a clear reflection that women’s bodies are being used as a tool of war. These circumstances are the direct result of policies and the behavior of agents of the state – represented by both the SAF and the RSF.”

In August 2023, several UN experts, including Reem Alsalem, UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women and Girls, raised alarm by reporting the widespread use of rape and sexual violence against women and girls by RSF in Sudan. Their statement indicated information about “consistent reports of widespread violations by the RSF, including reports that women and girls have been subjected to enforced disappearance and acts tantamount thereto, forced to work, and sexually exploited. Reportedly, hundreds of women have been detained by the RSF, held in inhuman or degrading conditions, subjected to sexual assault, and are vulnerable to sexual slavery.” It continued: “Sudanese women and girls in urban centers as well as in Darfur have been particularly vulnerable to violence. The lives and safety of migrant and refugee women and girls, primarily from Eritrea and South Sudan, have also been seriously affected.” The experts emphasized that some of the reported rapes appear to be ethnically and racially motivated.

Also in August 2023, Human Rights Watch published a report finding that the RSF and allied militias in Sudan “raped several dozen women and girls in West Darfur’s capital, El Geneina, and those fleeing to Chad between late April and late June 2023, The assailants appear to have targeted people because of their Massalit ethnicity and, in some cases, because they were known activists.”

The spike in the use of conflict-related sexual violence in Darfur is of high concern and requires urgent responses. The impunity for conflict-related sexual violence will only provide a fertile ground for further atrocities. The international community and Sudanese authorities must take immediate action to address these grave violations. This includes holding the responsible parties to account. Furthermore, victims and survivors must be provided with urgent assistance. The spike in atrocities cannot be ignored any more.

© 2023 Forbes Media LLC. All Rights Reserved.


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