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Women’s rights fought for in Sudan’s 2018 revolution go up in flames as terror rules Khartoum

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Refilwe Makgopela is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Johannesburg. Her doctoral study focusses on women’s rights, citizenship and belonging in Khartoum, Sudan, especially the role played by women during and after the 2018 Sudanese revolution. 

Women in Sudan bear the brunt of the ongoing war, caught in the middle of the power struggle between two warring parties in a country with a long history of oppression of women as well as an entrenched culture of sexual and gender-based violence.

For almost two months now, Sudan has been embroiled in a devastating civil war that has resulted in displacement of families, evacuation of foreign nationals, and destruction of critical infrastructure.

While the world’s attention has focussed on the power struggle between two men principally behind the conflict, General Abdel-Fattah Burhan of the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo who leads the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), the real victims of the ongoing conflict are overlooked.

Read more in Daily Maverick: The Sudanese state is collapsing, but does the US or Africa really care?

Similar to every major conflict, women in Sudan have borne the brunt of the ongoing war. They are caught in the middle of the power struggle between the two warring parties in a country with a long history of oppression of women as well as an entrenched culture of sexual and gender-based violence.

As the world’s attention continues to be fixated on the grand political drama of the two belligerent generals and their heavily armed supporters, it is important that the real victims of the ongoing civil war not be forgotten. They include medical doctors, nurses and other health professionals who are trying to save the lives of ordinary Sudanese. The victims of military strikes and aerial bombardments also include defenceless pregnant women and children.

Where are the women?

For ordinary Sudanese women, the impact of the civil war is not only in the husbands killed or a child hit by a stray bullet; their livelihoods have been destroyed too.

A once vibrant local economy fuelled by some 23,000 stationary saleswomen — trading at informal street stalls and makeshift kiosks — have ground to a halt. Street tea sellers, food sellers, and petty traders, almost all women, have retreated to the relative safety of their homes.

Women who sell their goods on the highways, in the markets, and in front of hospitals and other public facilities are nowhere to be seen. This, of course, represents a shift in fortune for this category of women who were hailed as feminist icons of the 2018 Sudanese revolution.

Hiding behind closed doors of their homes, Sudanese women now rely on using critical networks of information circulating on social media to share pharmacy and clinical services available and avoid clashes in the streets.

However, internet connectivity failures have hampered communication while the modus-operandi of the RSF of ransacking, looting, raping, and killing has left many in peri-urban areas such as el-Geneina in west Darfur stranded as homes have ceased to be safe spaces.

The RSF’s infiltration into the private sphere of the home is exemplified by increasing kidnappings, rapes, and shootings of unarmed civilians. Moreover, families have been forced out of their homes by soldiers or forced to share their homes with members of the RSF.

Women’s bodies weaponised

This confining of women to the private space of their homes echoes a troubling perpetuation of a much larger and historical pattern of behaviour by the military and the RSF. On the one hand, the state and the SAF use religion to exclude women from enjoying their right to public and political life.

On the other hand, the Rapid Support Forces, which morphed out of the Janjaweed, is infamous for genocide and systematically using rape as a weapon of war in the western region of Darfur.

As the conflict that devastated the peripheries has moved to engulf the centre, women’s bodies are used as weapons of war. Reports from the ground give harrowing details of the RSF’s indiscriminate attacks as “women are being routinely targeted, in some cases in front of family members, and subjected to brutal acts of sexual violence”.

This is not to say the army’s forces are not complicit. However, with the RSF occupying almost 90% of the capital, many victims of rape and violence identify RSFs as perpetrators of these heinous crimes. The official death toll stands at 865, it remains unconfirmed how many of these are women and children.

The Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa (Siha) has confirmed over 30 cases of rape in south Khartoum. They report 24 more women and girls being kidnapped and raped in west Darfur, with targeted attacks on refugees and internally displaced women becoming widespread.

With only 16% of hospitals in Khartoum functioning at total capacity, the UN warns of “critical shortages of supplies for the clinical management of rape and dignity kits, as the stocks are inaccessible”.

Amid the violence, people have struggled to access food, water, medical and protection services, and this situation will likely worsen. Women traders have had their businesses disappear overnight. Many fled war-torn areas in the west of Sudan and the poverty of the peripheries, but are now faced with a dire economic crisis and no financial safety net.

The fighting in Khartoum comes precisely four years after Khartoum was the site of the nationwide revolution that overthrew the al-Bashir regime. Women made up 70% of protestors against the NSF regime, which relegated women to second and third-class citizens through “public order” laws aimed at limiting women’s rights and participation in public life.

The prominence of female protestors and the violent clampdowns on their presence during the sit-ins in Khartoum in April is indicative of citizenship being contested, demanded, and often claimed violently by vulnerable and marginalised groups.

For instance, The SAF, its community police unit (also known as morality police), and the RSF employed disproportionate and fatal amounts of violence to quell dissent, killing more than 100 peaceful protesters in what has been described as the Khartoum Massacre.

Doctors and civilian accounts tell of the horrors of witnessing bodies being thrown into the River Nile while more than 70 women were raped and beaten in a deliberate campaign to “break the girls”.

Yet women activists persisted in demanding equal rights resulting in the repeal of the discriminatory laws in 2019. Notwithstanding, women’s freedom of expression and association remains severely restricted by the return of public order police under the guise of community police units.

Women’s inclusion in peace-building processes has often led to more sustained and comprehensive peace agreements. Despite this, women in Sudan continue to be sidelined in peace-building processes and political decision-making under the coup regime of de-facto leader General Burhan. The underbelly of this conflict is epitomised by the horrific realities of women and children’s suffering under the catastrophic humanitarian conditions brought on by the ongoing fighting.

This conflict has further alienated women, eradicating the marginal gains achieved during Sudan’s transitional period. Aware that they have been betrayed by those entrusted to provide safety and security, they have turned to the international community.

Women in Sudan have called on the UN to intervene and stem the culture of impunity, which has allowed for the escalation of violence against women and girls at the hands of the worst perpetrators of sexual and gender-based violence in Sudan. DM

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