Nairobi — More than 200 women have been sexually assaulted in the past five weeks alone around Kalma camp, Darfur's largest for internally displaced persons (IDPs), the International Rescue Committee (IRC) warned on Thursday.
"All these women have been subjected to sexual assault; some women say they have been raped," Nicky Smith, IRC country representative for Sudan, told IRIN.
Another 200 women and girls reported being beaten, punched and kicked by unidentified armed men who confronted them a few miles outside the camp near Nyala, the capital of South Darfur State.
"This is a massive spike in figures. We are used to hearing of two to four incidents of sexual assault per month in Kalma camp," said Kurt Tjossem of the IRC, which collected the figures.
In response to the rapidly deteriorating security situation, about 300 women convened a meeting in Kalma on 7 August to plead for more help - particularly from African Union (AU) troops who are trying to monitor a shaky ceasefire in the region.
"Women state that the lack of AU firewood patrols in the area is a factor that heightened the risks to which they have been exposed," Smith said. These armed AU patrols used to occur three times a week at Kalma, she added, and were relatively successful in deterring attacks. Since last April, however, the cash-strapped African peacekeepers have provided just one single patrol.
The women have no choice but to leave the relative safety of their camp to search for firewood - forcing them to walk several miles into the bush. If men went instead, they would be killed. "We have chosen to risk being raped rather than let the men risk being killed," one woman said at the 7 August meeting, according to the IRC.
"The capacity of the AU is limited due to their lack of capacity and funding," Smith added. "They also need a stronger mandate to provide a more secure environment for civilians."
IRC's country director said the numbers from Kalma were just one measure of Darfur's downward spiral of violence. Since the signing of the 5 May Darfur Peace Agreement, fighting has escalated between signatories and non-signatories to the peace deal. In recent weeks, as many as 50,000 people have been displaced across the region, while nine humanitarian aid workers were killed and 20 vehicles hijacked in July.
In a report released on Tuesday, the United Nations Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, warned that the renewed conflict in Darfur had drawn attention away from the continuing practice of ethnically targeted sexual violence against girls and women, particularly by the Sudanese Armed Forces and allied Janjawid militia.
"Grave sexual violence against girls and women in Darfur continues to worsen," he stressed. "Girls have been targeted in inter-ethnic conflicts as a deliberate form of humiliation of a group, and as a means of ethnic cleansing. Rape has been used to force displacement."
A report from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights last year indicated that 40 percent of victims were younger than 18 years old.
In the last previous report on the subject, released in March 2005, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) reported that between October 2004 and mid-February 2005, doctors in several locations in North and South Darfur had treated almost 500 women and girls who had been raped. The medical charity believed that these numbers reflected only a fraction of the total number of victims because many women were reluctant to report the crime or seek treatment.
Eighty-one percent of those treated by the NGO claimed members of militia groups or the military assaulted them. Almost a third (28 percent) of the rape survivors who sought treatment from MSF reported that they had been raped more than once, either by a single or multiple assailants, the report said.
Charged with publishing false information, undermining the Sudanese society and spying, MSF-Holland's head of mission in Sudan at the time, Paul Foreman, and its regional co-coordinator in Darfur, Vincent Hoedt, were arrested over the report in May 2005. Sudanese authorities dropped all charges the following month.
The UN Security Council is discussing a draft resolution to replace an understaffed African Union peacekeeping force with a larger and more effective UN mission to restore peace in Darfur.
The African Union, whose mandate expires at the end of September, has requested the transfer of its mission to the UN, saying it is unable to sustain a long-term peacekeeping operation. But Sudanese President Umar al-Bashir remains opposed and has warned that Sudan's army would fight any UN forces sent to Darfur.
The three-year Darfur conflict began when rebels rose against the central government, complaining that the vast region remained underdeveloped due to neglect. The government is charged with arming local Arab militias called the Janjawid to embark on a campaign of rape, looting and murder, aimed at crushing the rebellion.
Darfur's civilian population has borne much of the brunt of the violence, as non-combatants have been forced to flee their villages for the relative safety of teeming camps. According to Annan's latest report on Darfur, more than 200,000 people are believed to have died, with millions more displaced by the fighting.
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]