Trapped in an endless cycle of violence – the plight of Darfuri women and girls

By Manar Idriss, Sudan researcher at Amnesty International

After spending more than a week this November in eastern Chad, interviewing Darfuri refugees in two different refugee camps, I found myself reflecting on how the latest round of violence in Darfur led to yet another influx of refugees into Chad. And in particular it was distressing, but not surprising, to hear how the violence has impacted on women and girls, not only in Darfur, but also on the perilous journey to Chad.

Fleeing the violence between the Salamat and the Misseriya (two Arab tribes present in Sudan and in Chad), many women fled with nothing but the clothes on their backs and somehow made their way into Chad. Many of them told me about how they had to escape after witnessing their loved ones being shot and killed , their homes burned and their belongings stolen.

I sat for long hours in the middle of a group of women in the refugee camps listening to their traumatic accounts; to their fears and their hopes. They talked about their past, their present and their future. They had all suffered a great deal. Most had lost their husbands, or other close family members. Many didn’t know where their children were, and whether they were still alive. Some of the women had also been beaten up or shot at, and others had been raped.

The refugee camps we visited are predominantly populated by women and children. Walking inside Abgadam camp, in the far south-eastern corner of Chad, the absence of men is striking. Some women’s husbands stayed on in Sudan to look after their cattle, or returned to their villages to see what property they could recover. Many have disappeared or been killed.

One woman from the Masalit tribe who used to live in the Darfuri village of Abujeradil, told me:
“We woke up in the morning to make breakfast, then heard gun shots from afar, so we got scared and I ran away with my children. My husband refused to come, he wanted to stay and look after our home and cattle. I was later told that he died. He was shot in the chest…. Now I am alone here, with my eight children, and it’s not easy…”

Another woman, a mother of five, told me how her husband was shot dead as he attempted to run away. He was carrying their five-year-old son at the time. “I ran back to check on them… and saw that they both died on the spot,” she said looking down to the floor, as if trying to hide her pain.
These are only two of the many accounts I heard while in refugee camps in eastern Chad. What was most humbling was that despite the horrors these women have experienced, they were all striving for a better future. Many told me how they wished to get an education for themselves and, more importantly, for their children. “Lack of education is why we are here now,” many of them said. “Education is our only hope for a better future”.

Rape and other forms of sexual violence

Rape and other forms of sexual violence have been features of the armed conflict in Darfur and remain a constant threat for women and girls, both in areas directly affected by the conflict and across the region as the conflict fuels widespread insecurity.

After speaking with the leaders – men and women – of the Masalit tribe in Goz Amir Camp, I asked the men around us to leave, so the women could speak freely. As soon as the men left, one woman grabbed my arm and told me that armed men had abducted her 10-year-old daughter during the attack on her village. They held the girl for four days, during which time they beat and raped her. Then they abandoned her on the road to Chad. “She is only 10 years old. She came back full of bruises on her body, they beat her and raped her. How could they do that to a child” she said. Indeed, how could anyone do this to a child?

Many women told me that armed militias harassed and threatened them while they were fleeing to Chad. Some told me that men had tried to rip the clothes off their back. Others told me about women who were abducted in front of their eyes, and reappeared days later, with barely any clothes on them.

A 20-year-old woman told me how she was locked in a room with many other women from her village. The armed men, who were dressed in military fatigues, came and took “the prettier ones” and raped them. “They came, killed all our men, and then beat us, and raped some of us. They told us we are slaves.”

What struck me is the way some of these woman have accepted rape as part of their fate. They are too afraid to speak out, because they do not want to be stigmatized by their communities. They are too afraid to report rape, out of fear of being harassed, particularly in cases where the perpetrators are state actors. They have no confidence in the authorities’ ability or willingness to investigate. They know this shouldn’t be happening, but believe that nothing can be done about it.

UN and humanitarian workers we spoke with confirmed that the number of reported cases of sexual violence is strangely low. They are concerned about those low numbers because they know how rape has been such a central part of a decade of conflict in Darfur. And sure enough, almost every refugee I spoke with – men and women alike – told me that sexual violence, and in particular rape, is still very common in Darfur and certainly happened frequently during the most recent clashes in this region.

This is not only something that happens in conflict-affected areas. It seems to be part of the rampant insecurity that has prevailed throughout Darfur since the beginning of the conflict, a decade ago.

Many women and girls are raped when they go out to fetch firewood. One man told me that “sometimes you see a woman come back with torn clothes after disappearing for a few days. You can guess what happened. The problem is that nothing can be done about this.”
What these women’s traumatic accounts show is how the Sudanese government has utterly failed in its international legal obligations to prevent, protect against and punish these fundamental human rights violations, some of which may amount to war crimes or crimes against humanity for which individuals can be held criminally responsible. Sudanese authorities must also exercise due diligence to prevent and punish their violation whether by state or non-state actors such as the militias.

Women’s human rights are often forgotten and treated as a secondary concern, both in and outside of conflict situations. Despite efforts by the international community to address the violations and abuses committed against women and girls, in Darfur – rape and other forms of sexual violence remain a constant threat, and particularly due to the climate of pervasive and widespread impunity. More needs to be done to address the effects of this on-going crisis and to protect women and girls from this continued violence that has lasted for a decade.