Sudan's Women Face Unimaginable Horrors Amid Conflict

By Vanessa Onyema | Dec 4, 2023

It’s been over eight months of terror in Sudan due to a military conflict with a paramilitary group. The fighting erupted in April between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the powerful paramilitary group Rapid Support Forces (RSF). This has led to days and nights of terror, trauma and loss for the country situated in Northeast Africa.


An estimated 9000 people have been killed, 5.7 million have been displaced and 1.2 million have fled to neighbouring countries because of the conflict. The United Nations reports that the country has been plunged into one of the worst humanitarian nightmares in recent history due to half a year of the war. 


The most tragic of the incidents was when the paramilitaries arrived on the outskirts of Ardamata in early November, riding horses, camels, and motorcycles. Sudan's Rapid Support Forces (RSF) fighters kidnapped men and burned down their homes; at least 800 people were killed, and survivors were ordered to bury the dead. According to the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, the RSF went door-to-door in Ardamata, West Darfur state, rounding up and killing Masalit ethnic group members.


The United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, Alice Wairimu Nderitue strongly condemned the horrifying reports of grave human rights violations and abuses that continue to occur in the region and in the country, including identity-based killings, rape and other forms of sexual violence, torture, enforced disappearances, mass arrests and detention, bombings of civilian homes and infrastructure, and lootings. If confirmed, a number of these attacks may constitute genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes.


According to UN estimates, more than 3 million women and girls in Sudan were at risk of gender-based violence, including intimate-partner violence, even before fighting erupted on April 15. This figure has since risen to an estimated 4.2 million. The UN Human Rights Office in Sudan has received credible reports of 21 incidents of conflict-related sexual violence against at least 57 women and girls since the conflict began. At least ten of the victims are female. In one case, up to 20 women were allegedly raped in the same attack. 


Speaking with NPR Duaa Tariq a 30-year-old activist in Sudan reported that women's response rooms that deal with women's needs and issues such as sexual assault and gender-based violence (GBV) have been set up. This was done to help women who were victims of sexual violence and rape as the response rooms documented and recorded rape cases. Women from various ethnic communities have been specifically targeted and sometimes raped in front of their families. These women are constantly raped by the forces and there have been a few cases where women have been taken from their homes. Children have also been affected mentally by the militarization of the area.


The Sudanese Ministry of Social Development's Unit for Combating Violence Against Women continues to receive reports of conflict-related sexual violence. It has documented at least 42 alleged cases in Khartoum's capital and 46 in Darfur. Given the significant underreporting of gender-based violence, the true number of cases is almost certainly much higher. Because of shame, stigma, and fear of retaliation, many survivors find it difficult to report sexual violence. The lack of electricity and connectivity, as well as the lack of humanitarian access due to the volatile security situation, make reporting violations and receiving assistance difficult, if not impossible.  


The conflict has also taken a heavy toll on the country's healthcare system, with many hospitals closed, a shortage of essential medicines and supplies, and doctors risking shelling and their own lives to treat patients. Attacks on and occupation of health-care facilities also make it difficult for survivors to seek and receive emergency medical care.


The World Health Organisation (WHO) is collaborating with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and other health partners to improve access to emergency medical supplies. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is providing services to survivors, including medical and psychosocial support, as part of its broader protection interventions, while the United Nations International Children Emergency Fund (UNICEF) is working on the procurement of post-rape kits, risk mitigation, participation of women and girls, and prevention and response interventions.


Access to health care is life-saving for survivors of sexual violence. Women activists in Sudan have emphasised the need for more medications, medical supplies, dignity kits, and Post-Exposure Prophylaxis kits to prevent HIV transmission for clinical rape management. When survivors are unable to access health care, these items must also reach local clinics, community-based organisations, and key front-line responders. Also, donors must be generous to help women and girls on a large scale.