Sudan: Rape in Darfur

The crisis in Darfur continues to take its toll on people's lives despite the intervention of the African Union's peacekeeping force.
The United Nations has been keen to send peacekeepers to this volatile region of Sudan, but the Sudanese government has been reluctant to let a UN force in, claiming that this would be akin to allowing a recolonization of the first African country south of the Sahara to gain independence. [1]
Sudan's president Omar al-Bashir recently indicated that he would lead a resistance against any foreign force coming into Darfur. [2] His government has, however, not opposed the presence of the African Union (AU) peacekeeping force in the region, a force that has encountered severe limitations in keeping the peace due to financial and logistical shortcomings.

There have been numerous reports of the rape of women and girls in Darfur and in Chad, Sudan's neighbour to the west, a country to which many of the more than two million displaced Darfurians have fled to escape the war in their region. Within camps set up for internally displaced persons (IDPs) women have some measure of security. However, they are often attacked and raped when, as they must, they leave the IDP camps to collect firewood for sale or for use in cooking. According to some studies, every Darfurian woman has been raped or personally knows other women who have been raped. [3] The rape is said to be perpetrated by the Sudanese security forces as well as the Janjaweed militia. The latter group is often claimed to be armed and otherwise supported by the Sudanese government which on its part denies any link with the Janjaweed. The security forces in Chad have also been implicated in the rape of women. Regardless of who is perpetrating rape, countless women have been subjected to sexual violence during the Darfur conflict which began in 2003. One of the keywords of the Darfur conflict is undoubtedly rape.

Genocide, ethnic cleansing or 'simple' conflict?

The United States Congress and administration has referred to the Darfur situation as genocide. However, no other state has classified it as such, and a recent UN mission has found no evidence of genocide. Some media quarters have referred to the conflict as an ethnic cleansing while other people see it as a conflict over resources.

The classification of the kind of conflict taking place in Darfur has some implications on the kind of intervention the world community could make, and presumably the extent to which failure to intervene would weigh on its conscience. Genocide, which is the annihilation of a distinct ethnic or racial group, is seemingly regarded as being more serious than the elimination of people due to conflicts over resources. The international community has often castigated itself over its failure to intervene in a timely manner in the 1994 Rwanda genocide and has vowed 'never again.' If the Darfur war were commonly accepted as genocide or ethnic cleansing, the international community might have been more assertive of its obligation to intervene as quickly and effectively as practicable.

The legal classification of the Darfur war under international law not only has implications on how the international community will intervene, but also on how people found to have violated international law will be treated. This is because there are legal distinctions between genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and acts of aggression. The UN has forwarded to the International Criminal Court the names of 51 people accused of committing war crimes in the Darfur conflict. These crimes include rape and other forms of torture. Sudan's government has however vowed that it will not hand over the suspects to the ICC, but has not itself preferred charges against them.

Whom does rape violate?

Rape cuts across all the distinctions of international law. Moreover, it is also not only a crime under international law; it is a crime under national laws, religious tenets and moral sensibilities. When African Darfurian women are raped in order to produce Arab babies, it can be regarded as a measure to ensure that all babies born henceforth are of a certain ethnicity, or as an act calculated to humiliate the community of women violated. This is how rape as a weapon of war is commonly perceived. The outrage clearly seems to be against a certain ethnic or racial group seeking to eliminate the other by altering the genetic makeup of future generations. The world also seems to be outraged against the humiliation of an ethnic group by the rape of its women. What is less clear is the extent of the outrage against the violation of the woman.

The rape of one woman –anywhere in the world- has tremendous immediate and long term implications on her personhood, not only physically but emotionally and psychologically. It invariably affects the way she relates with herself, others and her environment, a way of relating is that is coloured by the trauma of rape. The sum effect of the sexual violation of numerous individual Darfurian women is likely to have repercussions on Darfurian women as a group and on Darfurian society in general. This is all the more so considering that there are meagre resources for the physical treatment let alone the psychological counseling of victims. What is the individual and societal effect of such a large number of psychically violated women?

Politics is regarded as having a major role in the Darfur conflict; not only local politics but also international politics. Some quarters say that the United States is vocal about the Darfur crisis only to divert attention from the war it is waging in Iraq. [4] The government of Sudan is disputing the extent of rape reported one non governmental organization. The head of the Sudan mission of Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), Holland was recently arraigned in a Sudanese court, charged with falsifying information in a report that chronicled the widespread rape of women in the Darfur conflict. [5] The Sudanese president, casting doubt on the veracity of the MSF report, is reported as having said that rape is unIslamic. MSF, however is adamant that rape is widespread and that disclosing the information collected from victims would violate doctor-patient confidentiality rules.

Whether or it is conflict over resources, genocide, ethnic clashes or ethnic cleansing that is taking place in Darfur right now, lives are being lost, devalued and otherwise irrevocably changed. Rape used as a method to alter the genetic ethnicity of a group with a view to eventually eliminating it is clearly abhorred. Rape used as a method to humiliate a certain ethnic group is abhorred. However the appraisal of conflict in the light of what rape does to the individual woman and the resultant effect on the society is something that warrants deeper exploration.

  1. See Osman, Mohamed 'Sudan's Leader Rules Out UN Peacekeepers in Darfur.' Global Policy Forum,' June 20, 2006. The Global Policy Forum. issues/sudan/2006/0620albashir.htm
  2. Ibid.
  3. O'Neill, W and Cassis, V. 'Protecting Two Million Internally Displaced: The Successes and Shortcomings of the African Union in Darfur,' 2005: The Brookings Institution- University of Bern.
  4. See Flounders, Sarah 'Why are the USA so interested in Darfur?' "Geostrategie" June 8, 2006.