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Civil war in Sudan: sexual violence as a weapon of war

Trigger Warning: This article is sensitive in nature and discusses sexual assault, rape and violence. If you need help or access services, please see here: Muslim mental health: services and organizations you can contact

As the conflict in Sudan celebrated its first anniversary in April 2024, the country still suffers from the brutal war against its people, with women bearing the brunt of the damage. The ongoing war, which broke out in April 2023, has subjected millions of Sudanese women to various forms of gender-based violence, perpetuating a cycle of vulnerability and oppression that severely hampers their economic empowerment, education and political participation.

Sudan is currently facing the largest humanitarian crisis in the worldwith the highest number of internally displaced people in the country, over 8.2 million displaced people, including around 105,000 pregnant women, painting a very dire picture. Save the children warned that 230,000 children, pregnant women and new mothers could die of hunger in the coming months unless emergency funding and assistance is provided to meet their needs. To better understand the civil war in Sudan, you can also read our article, What is happening in Sudan? A resource and guide.

According to World Health Organization, sexual and gender-based violence has reached epidemic proportions, putting more than four million women and girls at risk. Amid war crimes committed against the Sudanese people, reports of rape, assault and kidnapping of Sudanese women, particularly in areas like South Darfur, paint a grim picture of violence and persistent impunity. Rape has been used as a weapon of war, with young women attacked at gunpoint by RSF and Arab militias in Geneina, West Darfur. An investigation by Reuters from April to June 2023 revealed that the RSF specifically targeted and massacred civilians from the Masalit ethnic group, with a new wave of violence reported in November. Some reported that ethnic slurs were used during the attacks; others believed they had been singled out for their advocacy for Darfur. Despite the prevalence of sexual violence, many women did not subsequently seek medical attention for fear of social stigma. According to Human Rights Watch, several dozen women would be affectedbut the real number is probably much higher.

Throughout Sudan’s history, women have played a pivotal and revolutionary role in shaping the nation, gaining international recognition for their involvement in the peaceful revolution of 2019, which marked the end of thirty years of dictatorship by Omar Al-Bashir. A pivotal moment in Sudan’s 2019 revolution captures the essence of liberation in the iconic image of 22-year-old Alaa Salah. Above a sea of ​​protesters, Salah stands resplendent, his voice raised in jubilant chants and his traditional white suit. thobe a beacon of cultural pride and strength.

Among the chants echoing through the streets was the powerful declaration “tasgut bas,” a fervent call for the fall of the oppressive regime. Alaa’s image embodies the cumulative efforts made over decades by countless women, encompassing advocacy for revolutionary politics, as well as the progression and empowerment of women. Sudanese women spearheaded protests during the 2019 revolution, widely echoed chants and played a central role in sit-in camps. All of this was part of fierce opposition to the Bashir regime’s long-standing repression of women.

Sudanese activist Alaa Salah speaks at the United Nations, October 29, 2019. UN Television

In the aftermath of this revolutionary struggle, women faced brutal repression. During The Khartoum massacre on June 3 in 2019, sexual violence and murder were used in response to protesters. In the ongoing civil war, these tactics are being perpetuated once again, with the RSF primarily resorting to murder, torture, forced disappearances, kidnappings, sequestration, sexual slavery, rape, forced marriage and the slavery of women. The Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa (SIHA Network) has been a staunch defender of these crimes, vehemently condemning the persistence and widespread sexual violence against women in Sudan and calling for perpetrators to be held accountable. Their call for international support to create safe spaces for survivors highlights the urgent need for intervention in the current political climate. War is another iteration of counter-revolutionary violence against the Sudanese people who are fighting for their freedom.

As a result, Sudanese women actively face formidable obstacles, striving to rebuild their lives amid significant upheaval. With 19 million people out of school in Sudan due to war, many women find themselves unable to complete their studies or pursue their aspirations.

A woman who wished to remain anonymous, lost his chance to complete his studies and is now grappling with the difficult task of earning a living in wartime. She lost most of her possessions, including merchandise, when RSF militias searched and looted her home. “I can’t imagine a life here, and I don’t know how I’m going to finish my studies or find a partner,” she lamented, capturing the uncertainty and difficulties experienced by Sudanese women.

Wartime violence against women extends well beyond Sudan’s borders, also reaching Palestinian women in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Since October 7, Israel has kill nearly 34,000 Palestinians in Gaza and counting, including some 14,500 children and 9,500 women. The UN Human Rights Council called for an investigation after seeing credible allegations that Palestinian women and girls were subjected to inhumane conditions as well as sexual assault, including rape, during their detention in Israel. THE a group of experts said there was evidence at least two cases of rape, as well as other cases of sexual humiliation and threats of rape. Reem Alsalem, the United Nations special rapporteur on violence against women and girls, said the true scale of sexual violence could be much higher.

“We may not know for a long time what the real number of victims is,” said Alsalem, appointed special rapporteur by the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in 2021. “I would say that, overall, the violence and dehumanization of Palestinian women, children and civilians has been normalized throughout this war,” Alsalem said. The inquiry also expressed concerns over reports of arbitrary executions of Palestinian women, often alongside their families and including children, in Gaza. Like the brutality endured by Sudanese women, IDF soldiers engaged in Orientalization of Palestinian women by exposing women’s intimate clothing and posting it on social media.

Women continue to bear the brunt of these conflicts, highlighting the urgent need for increased advocacy and concerted efforts to address these grave human rights violations in Sudan, Palestine and beyond.

Despite the outcry from international organizations and the recognition of officials such as the British Minister for AfricaAccording to Andrew Mitchell, who considers the violence in Darfur to be “ethnic cleansing”, nothing substantial has changed on the ground. Additionally, attention to the suffering of women in Sudan has been exploited for political purposeswith both warring factions accused of using women’s purity as a tool of manipulation to serve their own interests.

With wars and ethnic cleansing in Sudan and Gaza lasting over a year and six months respectively, the experiences of women in these war-torn regions require urgent attention. You can support organizations like Sudanese-American Physicians Association (SAPA), Hometax Sudan, Solidarity with Sudan, Darfur Women’s Action GroupAnd SIHA network to help provide lifesaving aid and reparations to women affected by the ongoing conflicts in Sudan and Gaza. You can also read our article here find different ways to support the Sudanese people.

The international community must heed these testimonies and provide life-saving aid and reparations before thousands more succumb to the brutal realities of violence, including murder, rape and death from starvation.