(WOMENSENEWS)--The civilians of Darfur in western Sudan have been victims since February 2003 of coordinated attacks by the Sudanese government and bands of Arab fighters on horse and camelback known as Janjawid militias.
Amid the killing of tens of thousands of people, women in Darfur's towns, villages and camps have experienced grave human rights abuses, including abductions, sexual slavery, torture and forced displacement at the hands of the Janjawid. Beyond the immediate physical trauma and psychological anguish experienced by rape survivors, women in Darfur often suffer from protracted shame and stigmatization by their communities. They may give birth to children who are the products of rape or be exposed to sexually transmitted diseases.
While authorities in Khartoum, Sudan's capital, publicly pledge to improve security for civilians in Darfur, the testimony of women from the region tells another story.
Report on Rapes and Sex Slavery
As Amnesty International reported in July, women and girls as young as 8 are being raped and used as sex slaves in the conflict area, despite guarantees by the Sudanese government to disarm the Janjawid.
In some cases the Janjawid have raped women in public, in front of their husbands, relatives or the wider community. These women and girls are being attacked not only to dehumanize them, but also to humiliate, punish, control, inflict fear upon, displace and persecute the community to which they belong.
The Janjawid have acted with full impunity and with the full knowledge or acquiescence of the government army, and the government of Sudan has not charged a single member of the Janjawid or of the armed forces with committing rape or kidnapping.
In fact, the mass rapes ongoing in Darfur are war crimes and crimes against humanity that the international community is doing little to stop.
On July 30, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 1556, which demonstrated increased world attention to the plight of civilians in Darfur. The Security Council has threatened unspecified further action if Khartoum fails to prove by Aug. 31 that it has disarmed, apprehended and brought to justice the Janjawid militias guilty of committing human rights abuses and the council also has fully facilitated the delivery of humanitarian assistance.
However, this resolution failed to invoke measures to address critical human rights violations, including rape and other forms of sexual abuse.
Amnesty International has called for the immediate establishment of an international commission to examine evidence of war crimes, crimes against humanity and other violations of international humanitarian law including rape, as well as allegations of genocide. Perpetrators of attacks on civilians, including sexual violence against women, must be brought to justice in trials that meet international standards of fairness, with guarantees for the safety of victims and witnesses.
Despite the Security Council's actions and our report, the situation appears only to be getting worse. On Aug. 10, a United Nations High Commission for Refugees spokesperson reported that the agency has received reports of an increasing number of rapes inside government and Janjawid-run displacement camps. Authorities in Khartoum not only have done little to stop the rapes; medical resources for the proper care of victims, including trained personnel and facilities to treat sexually transmitted diseases, are sorely lacking.
Testimonies Heard in May
In May, Amnesty International delegates heard testimonies from Sudanese refugees in three locations along the Chad-Sudan border and obtained the names of more than 250 women and girls raped in Darfur. These women can only be considered a fraction of those displaced by the conflict.
Many women, out of fear of retribution and in deference to cultural taboos surrounding sexual violence do not come forward and tell their stories. Instead, as one woman told Amnesty International researchers, "They hide this shame in their hearts."
Rape in itself is a horrible human rights violation, but the survivors are likely to suffer even after the event. The lack of medical and psychological care facilities for rape survivors in the refugee camps compounds the violation. Women who survive this violence often suffer from severe mental and physical health problems and unwanted pregnancies.
Their ordeals also take the form of ongoing social stigmatization and economic hardship.
Married women who have survived sexual violence can be "disowned" by their husbands and in some cases may resort to prostitution to survive.
Unmarried survivors may never be able to marry because community members consider them "spoiled."
Women who are not able to marry or who have been abandoned by their husbands because they have been raped often become socially and economically vulnerable, unable to enjoy the economic support that men traditionally provide.
Testimonies reveal that women who have been raped often are afraid to seek refuge in the camps because they fear being ostracized by relatives living in the same camps.
Better care for rape survivors would require funding for adequate resources and personnel to treat the lasting physical and emotional wounds inflicted by rape. And it would require provisions for anti-retroviral drugs to treat women who also may have been exposed to HIV/AIDS. Sadly, the high rate of HIV infection among Rwandan survivors of rape is a shameful legacy of the failure to address the fatal consequences of the crime of sexual violence.
Single Women in Most Danger
Women and children make up the majority of the population in the camps. As Amnesty International learned from testimonies gathered last May, married women who have lost their husbands to violence and single women are in particular danger of abuse and exploitation, whether they have settled in camps for the internally displaced or have fled to nearby villages.
Their children are more likely to be affected by malnutrition, less likely to receive an education and these survivors and their daughters may be forced into prostitution.
Displacement has also led to an increase in the number of early marriages, with some families resorting to marrying their daughters at a very young age in the hope that marriage will give some measure of protection from the threat of sexual violence, protection parents feel unable to provide.
The Janjawid have raped many women who, fearing their husbands will be killed if they venture outside the camps, have gone in their place to collect firewood. The Janjawid also have tortured women to coerce them to report the whereabouts of their husbands. Forms of torture reportedly have included forcing the faces of women between wooden sticks and pulling out women's nails. Some women also have reported that the Janjawid have broken the legs of rape victims in order to prevent them from escaping.
While giving ample attention to the humanitarian crisis in Darfur, the international community needs to do more to stop what is happening to Darfur's women and girls. If the victims were our mothers, our daughters and our sisters, the international community would respond more vigorously.
Efforts to mobilize action around the crisis in Darfur will intensify over the next two months, including the UN International Day of Peace on September 21, when people across the country will participate in vigils, rallies, demonstrations and forums to focus attention and action on this urgent crisis.
It is our responsibility to use these opportunities to highlight and take action to stop the suffering of the people of Darfur. It is up to all of us to make sure that in this awareness, the plight of the women and girls of Darfur is not forgotten.
Beth Glick is a program associate for the Crisis Preparedness and Response Unit of Amnesty International USA.
For more information:
The Forgotten Crisis: Darfur, Sudan: