Life for women in Darfuri refugee camps in Sudan and neighboring Chad is extremely hard. Many have no access to any public authority that will investigate violence against women, and medical facilities are scarce to non-existent. While rape is rampant, and has allegedly been used as a “weapon of war” by the Khartoum backed militia engaged in a campaign of ethnic cleansing in Darfur, women are seldom able to find safety in seeking help from local authorities.
Uprooted from their homes, often relegated to ad-hoc communities where male elders are dispersed or involved in conflict, women victimized by corrupt camp guards or Sudanese police or militia risk serious physical attack or punishment for reporting rape. The Darfur refugee crisis has exacerbated the crisis levels of violence against women, and ongoing conflict and an apparent government cover-up campaign help to conceal the crimes.
The Nobel-prize-winning human rights and medical aid group Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) has been investigating the proliferation of accounts of brutal treatment of women in the camps. One woman told the group “I was raped in the camp in 2007 by a man with a knife at night. I am very sad. I told this to the sheikha, but they didn’t find the man who did it. My new husband doesn’t know that this happened to me.” She also said Chadian soldiers now raid camps at night, but she was lucky to have evaded being raped, so far.
There is no food. I am suffering. They only give us a little bit of sorghum. How can I be happy? I think a lot about my country. I don’t think I’m sick, but I think a lot about what happened. The sadness has entered into my heart.
Sometimes, I go to look for wood. But if I see anyone on the way, I go back to the camp. They yell at me, “Leave the wood.” There’s only me on my ration card, so I don’t get enough wood.
I live here with my husband and grandchildren and daughter-in-law, the wife of my son who was killed.
Despite living with other relatives, she is less able to provide for them, because the violent marginalization of women puts her at a disadvantage in finding food and fuel to sustain a home-life for her relatives. Such tensions over scarce supplies inflame tensions and can be linked to some cases of violence against women, where competition for resources is seen as justifiably favoring men, in the tribal, traditional, and conflict-induced setting.
PHR has conducted a study, one of the most in-depth to date, into the persistent problem of violence against women, including sexual violence and rape. According to the group:
In November, 2008, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) sent a team of four experts to gather an in-depth picture of the lives and concerns of Darfuri women now living in the Farchana Refugee Camp in eastern Chad. Eighty-eight women sat with PHR’s team of three physicians and a human rights researcher and spoke candidly and openly about their lives in Darfur, the horrific attacks that drove them from their villages, their harrowing flight to Chad, and the struggles of their daily lives in the camp.
The team found that many of these women had been sexually violated in Darfur, and many have been raped since arriving at the camp in Chad. They risk sexual assault on an everyday basis when they leave the camp to collect firewood. Shame and fear of further violence or rejection by their families lead most of these women to suffer these indignities in silence.
Attitudes about violence against women in Darfur vary widely and are a source of high controversy in Sudan. Last year, at the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women, at the UN Headquarters in New York, a panel of women from the Sudanese parliament, headed by a female Sudanese doctor linked to the Khartoum government, gave a report on the status of violence against women in the Darfur conflict zone, in which rape was virtually ignored.
Though the presentation focused on rape as a form of violence against women, the reports of “confirmed cases”, based only on the cases the authorities both accepted as legitimate complaints and had successfully prosecuted, put the annual number of rapes for each of the three designated zones in Darfur in the single digits, even as NGOs and UN agencies were estimating figures, compiled from sporadic reports of cases never prosecuted, in the tens of thousands, including documentation of a deliberate campaign involving some government-backed forces.
The presentation was a glossing over of the entire problem of violence against women, designed primarily to defend or extoll the government’s official response to international accusations of war crimes including systematic rape. The official response purports to have set up “clinics” in every refugee camp and every village, though by the end of the presentation —which was cut short amid difficult questioning— the panel admitted that no such clinics yet existed and there was no proof that women had any recourse real post-rape support.
As we reported in March:
[The National Plan of Action (NPOA)] itself is tainted by the open direction that it be used “to respond to international claims and accusations”. Though there are provisions for “raising awareness” about violence against women, via the Ministry of Information, a process to be organized by a dedicated special committee, the mission of countering international perceptions about extreme violence and mass rape means there is pressure to file reports of reduced or scarce violence against women (”Four years of success in combating violence against women”), incentive to not report, not address, to cover up, what violence there is.
Numerous observers at the UN conference, some of them university researchers, some having worked in the field in Darfur, said the panel was also compromised by the views of some privileged Sudanese women that Darfuri women should not automatically be believed when they complain of such extreme violence. One woman told me she believed the Sudanese parliament ministers might not have any real freedom to address the problem of violence against women and might fear for their lives should they give actual figures.
Women who report being raped are stigmatized, and remain trapped in places of perpetual insecurity. There’s no one to stop the rapes, no one to turn to for justice for past or ongoing crimes, and little psycho-social support to address their prolonged and unimaginable traumas.
In fact, indifference, tolerance of violence against women and systematic efforts to obscure the atrocities, combine to put women in Darfur’s refugee camps in a chronic condition of extreme vulnerability. Women already victimized by brutal attacks on their bodies or their families may be subjected to even more brutal treatment when they come forward, as some authorities see them as 1) highly defenseless and 2) targets for allegations of sexual deviance, a common attack on women who are able to demonstrate that violence occurred.
In 2004, the women’s rights group NOW reported “Tens of thousands of women [in Darfur] have been displaced, raped and killed since the violence began, and an end to these horrors is not in sight.” Indeed, the projection was right. Many aid groups speak of workers observing continued brutality against women and an atmosphere of near total impunity for government-backed militia and police involved in any such crimes.
Anecdotal reports of aid workers, many of them Sudan-born, forced to leave the country due to having expressed concerns about violence against women or the ongoing genocide, are numerous. One anonymous source, who had to flee into exile to avoid attacks against herself and her family, says government threats to aid workers have become an integral part of the campaign of violence against the people of Darfur.