Nafisa Bedri

OMDURMAN, Sudan (WOMENSENEWS)–Here among the dozen or so red brick buildings spread across 20 acres in the ancient city of Omdurman–the northern third of Sudan’s capital of Khartoum–sits the remnants of a dream that is beginning to reawaken after decades of war.

Nearly 100 years ago, Sheikh Babiker Badri, Sudan’s first head of the Department of Education, had a dream to educate women as men were educated.

He began his school for girls in 1907 that was later transformed into a women’s university in the mid-1960s. Today, this former secondary school makes up the home of Ahfad University for Women. Some of the buildings on the original campus are only partly constructed, waiting for donations from Europe that were cut off after the presidential coup in 1989.

A late 19th century liberation fighter turned teacher, Badri continued throughout his life to establish the first non-governmental schools for both girls and boys known as the "Ahfad Schools." His son, Yousif Badri, continued that vision of the first girls’ school through its transformation into the women’s university it is today.

Ahfad’s nearly 5,000 students come here from all over Sudan and across the continent to study medicine, nutrition and rural development.

At Africa’s only women’s university, it doesn’t matter if a young woman is studying pharmacology or business management. Each of them must also learn population theory and gender studies. And every student participates in field projects in rural areas, learning to assess and address the needs of rural women.

What may be most remarkable in this Muslim country, however, is the secular university’s open policy on teaching girls about reproductive health. Married students have access to the campus women’s health clinic where advice and birth control are easily available. The clinic is also open to neighborhood residents.

Changing Times

Times are changing for Sudanese women, at least in Khartoum.

Government policy reforms since 2003 have seen restrictions against women in the country relax so that now a woman walking alone on the street or driving a car across the dusty capital is nothing unusual.

But as Sudan tries to pull itself out of the ashes of the continent’s longest running war–lasting nearly 40 of the last 50 years–advocates are worrying more about the women outside the city’s limits. Sudan has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world where the chance of pregnancy-related death is 1 in 30, according to a 2004 U.N. study.

Khadiga Abu Elgasim Haj Hamed

Thousands of women from the Darfur region have been raped, reported the New York-based advocacy group, Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children. Many of the rapes are associated with the government-backed militia known as the Janjaweed. An estimated 300,000 people have lost their lives in the Darfur conflict since early 2003.

After the peace agreement to end the war was signed in February in Nairobi, the government set out a budget of $9.4 billion between 2005 and 2007 to set the country back on its feet, Khadiga Abu Elgasim Haj Hamed, Sudan’s deputy minister of welfare and social development, told Women’s eNews.

But it’s not clear exactly how much of that aid will go toward women’s security and health care needs.

"Women are most affected by war," the deputy minister said. "Money is set aside for programs specifically for women, but those programs really are for the communities. We want to stop the rush of rural people to the urban areas so we are making incentives to go back to their homes by providing for basic needs and services."

No Roads for Health Care to Travel

In the war-torn south, roads are nonexistent. As a result, Dr. Nahid Toubia, the 54-year-old president of Research Action and Information Network for the Bodily Integrity of Women, a London-based women’s health advocacy group, says almost no health care reaches women.

Nahid Toubia

"If we take away malaria, women’s maternal mortality is probably the largest killer in Sudan," Toubia told Women’s eNews.

The Sudan Federal Ministry of Health estimated 509 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births in 2003, the latest figures available, or roughly 7,000 maternal deaths annually. The U.N. puts the toll higher, however, and estimates between 8,000 and 15,000 Sudanese women die annually in childbirth.

Observers inside and outside of the country say it is too soon to tell how women’s health will fare under the newest government formed just before Ramadan this year. According to Toubia, the situation is likely to get worse in the near term but hopes women’s health will improve in the long run.

Only a few years ago, the United Nations Population Fund, known as UNFPA, was on the verge of expulsion from the country because the government felt reproductive health and contraception were a conspiracy against Islam.

Currently, however, the population fund is firmly at work in Sudan.

Not only is it one of Ahfad University’s main partners in teaching and providing reproductive healthcare, it is one of the largest international agencies in the country. Of the $13.5 million the fund will spend in Sudan between 2002 and 2006, $10.5 million will go toward reproductive health programs and assistance.

Huge Health Care Gap

While the country has begun embracing reproductive health, Toubia says it faces an enormous disparity between those women who have access to health care–they are mainly in the capital–and those who do not.

Toubia says that within Khartoum, those with the financial means have access to good levels of private health care and some even have access to a handful of private clinics.

With the support of the Los Altos, Calif.-based David and Lucile Packard Foundation, Ahfad University, for instance, makes leaflets on contraceptives, sexually transmitted diseases and HIV-AIDS available to students and the community alike.

The university’s contraceptive and family planning clinic, meanwhile, may be only one of seven units in the university’s clinic. But the fact that it is operating is a sign of how times have changed for women in the capital. After stirring up controversy when it opened in 1994 because some interpreted contraception as anti-Islamic, that unit is now serving a steady stream of about 50 patients a day.

"Some people feel that these programs want to encourage women to abandon men and become disobedient and against the social norms," said Dr. Nafisa Bedri, assistant dean for the university’s school of family sciences. "But as they get used to them and understand the concepts behind them, many get (on board) and recognize their importance."

But in the rest of the country, which is one-quarter the size of the United States, that access drops to nearly nothing.

Toubia estimates that in the north, east and west of the country where mediocre transportation infrastructure exists, between 10 percent and 15 percent of women have access to health care.

Meghan Sapp is European correspondent for Women’s eNews. She is a freelance journalist based in Brussels, Belgium, and writes primarily on trade, development and agriculture issues.

For more information:

Ahfad University for Women:

Research Action and Information Network for the Bodily Integrity of Women:

U.N. Population Fund:

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