Friday, June 17th, marked the 22nd anniversary of International Justice Day, a day honoring the creation of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC). It is imperative that as we reflect on the progress that has been made, we also recognize there is still more work to be done in securing justice for the victims and survivors of the genocide. We cannot forget the women who were victims of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) as a result of this conflict as well. In Sudan, nearly two decades of conflict has allowed for SGBV to be a common occurrence, despite recent ceasefires. There are reports of SGBV reported to RadioDabanga almost every day. The survivors of SGBV, especially when it occurs in conflict zones, are often left without justice due to the stigma attached to these crimes and often for fear of retaliation, women and families remain silent It is essential that as we continue the fight for justice, there is a dedicated effort to support the needs of survivors and hold the perpetrators of the SGBV accountable. There must be improved reporting mechanisms and protections for victims of SGBV and it is imperative that their needs are centered in the search for justice.
Sexual and Gender-based Violence (SGBV) in Conflict and Why it’s an Issue
Globally, sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) impacts one in three women in their lifetime. The United Nations recently highlighted how insecurity and displacement often fuels an increase in SGBV. SGBV is widespread and often an integral part of conflict, but it is seldom talked about due to the stigma attached. Victims are often unable to come forward for fear of retaliation, as well as rejection from their community as a result of the crimes committed against them. Sexual violence is frequently used as a tactic of war and is a very effective strategy for smaller militias with less resources for other weapons. It is cheap and effective because the combatants can use their bodies as weapons with devastating impacts. It has lasting repercussions, often with the intent to destroy the fabric of the community in which it is wielded against. It perpetuates cycles of violence and the survivors are often left without access to resources and never see justice for the crimes committed against them. Survivors of SGBV in conflict are often too scared or ashamed to report what happened to them, making it difficult to find out actual numbers of incidents.
Relevance to Sudan
Sexual and gender-based violence, particularly systematic rape and sexual slavery, have been wielded against the people of Darfur during the long-standing crises. The Janjaweed are notorious for their brutal attacks against civilians, using kidnapping and rape as weapons of war. However, they are not the only group who have utilized SGBV during the conflict. Torture, rape and sexual harassment are seen as effective weapons against the enemy’s women, as it successfully demoralizes and terrorizes people, forcing them to flee their homes. Despite recent ceasefires, SGBV continues to happen, as new incidents are reported to RadioDabanga almost every day. Women from Fur, Zaghawa, Masalit, Berti, Tunjur, and other non-Arab ethnicities are targeted, although it is not exclusive to these groups. Given that the Sudanese government allowed Jajaweed fighters to infiltrate the security sector in the country, it is necessary for the transitional government to give reparations to the survivors of SGBV at the hands of the government and the government-backed militias. Women and girls are not only fearful of attacks by these groups, but also rebel groups fighting against the central government and their allies as well. Even in times of peace, women still had to be fearful of the threat of SGBV.
Not only does rape occur during conflict, but women and girls living in internally-displaced persons (IDP) or refugee camps are vulnerable to SGBV there as well. For example, in June 2008, at a refugee camp in Chad, a group of women, aged 13 to 30, were tortured by other Sudanese refugees located inside the camp. Accused of prostitution, dozens of men took turns beating them with whips and sticks, in front of the entire camp, in an attempt to shame the women. As a result, the women of the camp crafted a document, a 14-point manifesto (known as the FARCHANA Manifesto), that calls for the empowerment of women within refugee camps. The women and girls in these camps (quote from woman at the Farchana camp in Chad) have said that, at times, it is safer for them back in Sudan, where they had “some freedoms” unlike in Farchana, where they have none. This is just one of the many examples that even after women make it to IDP or refugee camps, they are not suddenly immune to SGBV.
There is social stigmatization that takes place, which combined with the lack of accountability for perpetrators of these attacks, make women fearful and distrusting of law enforcement, meaning they are unlikely to come forward. There is a veil of secrecy that surrounds reporting SGBV, which makes it difficult for aid workers to get accurate numbers of those impacted.
Need for Accountability
While there has been impunity for all of the perpetrators of the genocide in Darfur, women and girls who were victims of SGBV are even more likely to be denied justice. Similar to the systematic rape in Darfur, the Rapid Support Forces has also used rape against Sudanese women during the June 3rd 2019 , a famous incident to quell protest. During the thirty years of al-Bashir’s ruling Sudanese laws have been used to oppress women and the popular disciplinary act has been actively used to oppressed or commit violence against women in the capital Khartoum. Women were flogged for the simplest things such as wearing pants. Despite all the promises made, the current interim government of Sudan has failed to adequately integrate the voices of women or allow meaningful participation. This will make reforming institutions and laws to be favorable to women difficult when they are not at the table. Therefore, there is a desperate need to bolster the justice system’s ability to handle crimes related to SGBV, as the current system is ill-equipped to handle the needs of victims. There needs to be laws put in place that centers the needs of the victims and a firm commitment to increase the number of female police officers in the country who would be more equipped to respond to these crimes.
In this regard, the International Criminal Court represents a unique opportunity that all actors and stakeholders need to leverage to ensure that accountability for crimes against women must not go unpunished. The Rome Statute has specific articles that deal with sexual and gender-based violence and in the case of Darfur, the ICC has confirmed that rape has been used as a tool of genocide.
While empowering women in conflict to participate in decision making is crucial, without proper accountability for crimes committed against women, conflicts can’t be resolved sustainably. Resolving the problem of Sudan can’t be possible without accountability for crimes committed against women and the effective participation of women at all levels of decision making.