Sudan: The call of Sudanese women human rights defenders

Open Democracy

Women activists challenging the fundamental structures of their communities and calling for new terms of peaceful coexistence between the Sudanese people, are facing prosecution, sexual violence, and harsh punishment by Sudan's security service, says Nazik Kabalo

Tahany Hassan, a 17 year old high school female student was shot in the head and killed on July 31st by the Sudanese police in Nayala, South Darfur.  She and hundreds of high school students were protesting the big increase in transportation fees, which means that most of them will not be able to go to school any more. In Khartoum, Port Sudan, Alobaied and many other Sudanese states, dozens of women were beaten, detained, verbally abused and sexually assaulted when they took to the streets to challenge the government's deliberate denial of the fundamental human rights of the Sudanese people.

In the past two weeks, twelve Sudanese women activists have been released from detention after living in small stinky cells for almost two months. No one had known their location for most of their detention period. The Sudanese security service known as NISS had denied them access to their family or lawyers. They lived in the Sudanese security detention, completely isolated from the outside world. One of the released women detainees said “ they were trying to break us psychologically by this inhuman treatment, we couldn’t even go to the bathrooms when we needed to: animals can, we couldn’t.”

For six weeks the Sudanese students, lawyers, doctors, women and activists demonstrated against the Sudanese government policies. The protests started by Khartoum female students on June 16th and spread throughout the country, and while the first spark was the government austerity measures and high prices, the protests kept growing in number and demands. Inspired by the Arab Spring they called for the overthrow of the regime. The world watched#SudanRevolt through the social media, where women activists were blogging on Twitter and Facebook.

The Sudanese government now knows for sure that women were not just the spark of the revolt or even just protestors. They now know that Sudanese women were mobilizing behind the scenes and in the front lines of the political parties, youth movements and civil society . On March 18th  the Akhir Lahza newspaper reported that Nafie Ali, the ruling party leader and the President's high consultant, said at a gathering of his party's women members, “ you all know about those  women activists working with international organizations to implement destructive plans against the community.”  

Sudanese women activists have been fighting on so many fronts at the same time and facing enormous threats. Most women in the civil society organizations, political parties and rights based movements believe that the fundamental structures of the Sudanese community have to be radically changed, and new terms of peaceful coexistence between the diverse components of different religious, ethnical and political groups have to be found. This challenge is being met by the solid work of many women's groups working in peace building and non-violence movements, by people who have lived through the longest civil war in the African continent - a 50 year civil war between the African non -Muslim South Sudan and the Arabic/Muslim North Sudan. They understand that the complicated reasons for this war lie beyond this classification of Arab or African and Muslim or non-Muslims, that it is more related to the culture of deep rooted racism and discrimination in the Sudanese community which remains silent.

Women have been the biggest losers from this silent epidemic of racism, religious and ethnic discrimination, adding to the historical gender base discrimination against them. The reality on the ground provides the proof.  Thousands of Darfuri women have been raped in the past decade, and they are still being raped even inside the IDP camps. In the new conflict in the Nuba mountains and Blue Nile, rape is still used as a weapon by the Sudanese government forces. But rape is not used just in the war regions, Sudanese government security members have reportedly attacked women detainees such as Safia Ishaqu who was raped in March last year by Sudanese security forces after a demonstration in Khartoum.  Safia spoke out and pressed charges against the Security Service members. Many women journalists took up her case, demanding a full and independent investigation, but the Sudanese government reacted by prosecuting the journalists and even jailed two women journalists - Amal Habani and Fatima Gazaly - who were banned from writing for newspapers following the case.

Female protesters in the June demonstrations were subjected to many forms of sexual violence and intimidations. One female student and protest organizer said “the security members and police men unzipped their paints in front of us on street while we protesting outside Khartoum University". Other women detainees testified on their release about verbal abuse, reporting that the security forces had told them “ you are not good women leaving your houses to protest “, and that the interrogations had been one long series of verbal abuse, intimidation and defamation.

The street protests of the initiative  “ No to women oppression “ led to thedetention of its members. Other women's organizations and activists chose strategies such as working with local leaders in the slums around the big cities where most of the war affected peoples live ,and with students and youth. They held training sessions on peace and non-violence, in addition to human rights and women rights awareness workshops. This quieter quite work done by many organizations that it is not safe to name, is creating the foundation for community awareness about how to be more involved in rebuilding their lives and their country under new conditions,  based on a  respect for human rights and the end of discrimination and violence against women and marginalized peoples.

Marginalization and the exclusion from participating in the economical, social and political process in Sudan is the product of racism and gender, ethnic and religious discrimination: it is fuelling the endless wars in Sudan. Women inside the political parties and civil society have always called for peace and the end of war. In July 2011, just three weeks of the start of the war in Nuba Mountains, eight  women were  prosecuted for demonstrating against the atrocities committed in the region, and calling for peace. I was one of them. We had been campaigning against war and collecting aid for the people who were internally displaced from the Nuba mountains, where they had been attacked, one by one, by the security forces. Our hope had been to break the long silence about he crimes being committed by the government against the marginalized peoples in Sudan.

Khartoum used to host up to 9 million internally displaced people, but since the secession the numbers are unknown.  Women trying to earn a living work in low wage jobs - mainly in food and drinks making, and as IDPs they work under very restricted laws, have to cover their hair if they are working on street, and put up with sexual harassment by the men they are serving and by the police.

Sudan after the independence of the South, now faces the challenge of deciding  its own identity and rediscovering itself. While the wars are fought, the political and youth movement is demanding  change. Women are standing at the heart of this process - calling for more rights and fighting against violence and discrimination not just against their gender, but against all Sudanese peoples, and pushing for more political participation in the decision making process.

In the past months Sudan has elected the first woman to be president of a political party, Ms. Hala Abd Alhalim Haqu. At the same time, new youth led political movements are calling for regime change and a new constitution, demanding that 35% of women are elected and appointed positions in the state.Women human rights defenders and activists are strong mobilizers for the workers and professional unions to demands their rights, and women lawyers, doctors and journalists are leading this rights based movement.  Sudanese women  are moving towards renegotiating the power distribution in the country alongside with the marginalized peoples in many Sudan’s regions. This is why the Sudanese government shows such violence against women and considers them as enemies working for the “ destruction of the community”.  While  some of the peoples in the war regions in Sudan are fighting with arms to gain their full human rights and political participation and their share in the country’s wealth and power, women are choosing other weapons to reach the same goals - using resilience,  awareness, solidarity, and courage .