28 February 2018

Sudan: Culture of Deep-Seated Denial of Sexual Violence in Sudan

opinion

United Nations — At the invitation of the Government of Sudan, I visited Sudan from 18 to 25 February 2018. The objective of the visit was to gain first-hand knowledge of the situation, assess the challenges of addressing conflict-related sexual violence in Sudan, and establish constructive dialogue with national authorities in this regard.

It marked the first time that any Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Sexual Violence in Conflict had visited the country since the office was established by Security Council resolution 1888 (2009).

In Khartoum, I met with senior Government officials, parliamentarians and civil society representatives. I also met with the National Human Rights Commission and the Sudan Bar Association, and visited a Women and Child Protection Police Unit. In Darfur, I visited North Darfur (El Fasher) and West Darfur (El Geneina), where I met with senior State-level officials and women at the Abushok and Alhujajj camps who had been displaced as a result of the conflict.

A key observation from my visit to Sudan is the existence of a deep-seated culture of denial which enhances and feeds the culture of silence about sexual violence. Unlike victims of other crimes where perpetrators are condemned, it is usually the victims of sexual violence who are shamed or stigmatized.

As a result, victims of sexual violence are very often fearful of reporting the crime or seeking assistance, further compounding their suffering. Because sexual violence is so vastly underreported, the lack of reported cases cannot be equated with the absence of violence.

It deeply saddened me to hear interlocutors in Sudan doubting and questioning victims as well as the appalling nature of these crimes. The pervasive culture of denial is the most serious obstacle to eradicating this heinous crime.

In many of my meetings, senior government officials explained that there is no sexual violence in Sudan because such violence is strictly prohibited by the Islamic religion. No religion or faith, however, is immune from sexual violence.

Paradoxically, religious institutions can provide much needed emotional and social support, but may also perpetuate silence when they use religion to deny that sexual violence occurred in the first place. I therefore call upon religious leaders in Sudan to speak out on the need to protect and support survivors, and to hold perpetrators accountable.

The ongoing collection of weapons in Sudan is a commendable initiative, and there appears to be an overall improvement in the security situation as noted in Security Council resolution 2363 (2017). However, as the Secretary-General reported in December 2017 (S/2017/249), there remain serious concerns regarding conflict-related sexual violence in Sudan.

During my brief visit, I learned that women continue to be raped while collecting water or firewood, or when they leave camps to pursue livelihood activities. I also heard from women who are unable to return to their pre-war homes due to the absence of security and fears of being raped. In addition, women told me about sexual violence committed in the context of inter-communal conflicts over land and natural resources.

In addition to ensuring security, states also have the responsibility to hold perpetrators of conflict-related sexual violence accountable. This requires a criminal justice system which includes institutions willing and able to conduct investigations and prosecutions in accordance with international standards; the adoption and implementation of comprehensive legislation that guarantees equal protection of the law, prohibits all forms of sexual violence, and ensures the protection and well-being of victims and witnesses; public awareness initiatives to educate the population about their rights; and the allocation of adequate resources to criminal justice institutions and service providers.

In this regard, recent amendments to the Criminal Code on the definition of rape as well as the establishment of Women and Child Protection Police Units are important steps forward.

In El Fasher, I met with the Prosecutor General of the Special Court for Darfur, which has jurisdiction over conflict-related crimes committed in Darfur since February 2003. I was dismayed to learn that, to date, the Special Prosecutor's Office has not investigated a single case of conflict-related sexual violence.

In contrast, there continue to be references to conflict-related sexual violence in Security Council resolutions and reports relating to Sudan, including those of the Secretary-General, the International Commission of Inquiry established under Security Council resolution 1564 (2004), the Panel of Experts on Sudan established under Security Council resolution 1591 (2005) and the Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women.

I also learned that there are no female judges in any of the five states of Darfur. There is a need for female judges as well as more female police investigators and prosecutors.

In Khartoum, I had the opportunity to meet representatives of non-governmental organizations (NGO), including women human rights defenders. I observed, however, that NGOs feel restricted from voicing their views or carrying out programmes on conflict-related sexual violence for fear of reprisal and other consequences.

A society in which women human rights defenders have the freedom and space to be vocal and proactive is a society in which women flourish and participate in decision-making, and in which there is absolute intolerance for sexual violence.

As an outcome of my visit, it is my expectation that the Government of Sudan will agree to adopt a Joint Communiqué between the United Nations and the Government of Sudan. The Joint Communiqué will reflect the Government's commitment to address conflict-related sexual violence, and provide a framework for United Nations support to be provided through my office (including the Team of Experts on the Rule of Law/Sexual Violence and the inter-agency network United Nations Action Against Sexual Violence in Conflict); the African Union-United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID); and the United Nations Country Team in Sudan.

It will also serve as a basis for mobilizing the necessary resources for such support. I have proposed that the Joint Communiqué focus on five priority areas: survivors' access to medical, psychosocial, legal and socioeconomic services; monitoring, analysis, documentation and information sharing on sexual violence; rule of law responses to conflict-related sexual violence; engagement with the security sector; and engagement with religious leaders and civil society. I have also proposed to deploy a United Nations technical team to Sudan to undertake a needs assessment and develop a plan to implement the Joint Communiqué.

Sexual violence in conflict ruins the lives of individuals, destroys families, breaks up communities and prevents societies from achieving sustainable peace. For too long, sexual violence in conflict has gone unacknowledged and unpunished. There must be no doubt that perpetrators of sexual violence in conflict and post-conflict situations will be held accountable.

To this end, my office stands ready to support efforts to prevent and respond to conflict-related sexual violence. However, we can only do so where governments are genuinely committed to combatting conflict-related sexual violence and are willing to translate that commitment into concrete actions and results.

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