The Best of Amaliah Straight to Your Inbox

Sudan’s Civil War: Sexual Violence as a Weapon of War

by in World on 16th May, 2024

Trigger Warning: This article is of a sensitive nature and mentions sexual assault, rape and violence. If you need help or access to services, please see here: Muslim Mental Health: The Services and Organisations You Can Contact

As the conflict in Sudan marked its one-year anniversary in April  2024, the nation is still suffering at the hands of the brutal war against its people, with women bearing the brunt of the devastation. The ongoing war which erupted 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 hinders their economic empowerment, education, and political participation.

Sudan is currently facing the largest humanitarian crisis in the world, with the largest number of internally displaced people at over 8.2 million individuals displaced including approximately 105,000 pregnant women, painting a very dire picture. Save the Children has warned that 230,000 children, pregnant women and new mothers could die in the coming months due to hunger unless urgent life-saving funding and aid is delivered to address their needs. To understand the Sudan Civil War better you can also read our article, What Is Happening in Sudan? A Resource and Guide.

According to the World Health Organization, sexual and gender-based violence has reached epidemic proportions, placing over four million women and girls at risk. Amid the war crimes being committed against the Sudanese people, reports of rape, assault, and abduction of Sudanese women, particularly in regions like South Darfur, paint a grim picture of the ongoing violence and impunity. Rape has been used as a weapon of war, with young women being assaulted at gunpoint by RSF and Arab militia forces in Geneina, West Darfur. An investigation by Reuters from April to June 2023 revealed that the RSF specifically targeted and slaughtered civilians from the Masalit ethnic group, with another wave of violence reported in November. Some reported that ethnic slurs were used during the assaults; others believed they were singled out because of their advocacy for Darfur. Despite the prevalence of sexual violence, many women did not seek medical treatment afterward due to fears of social stigma. According to Human Rights Watch, several dozen women were reported to be affected, but the actual number is likely to be much higher. 

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

Among the chants reverberating through the streets was the powerful declaration, ‘tasgut bas’—a fervent call for the oppressive regime to simply fall. Alaa’s image epitomised the cumulative endeavours spanning decades by countless women, encompassing advocacy for revolutionary politics, and the progression and empowerment of women. Sudanese women spearheaded protests during the 2019 revolution, echoed chants widely, and played pivotal roles in sit-in camps. All of this was in staunch opposition to the Bashir regime’s longstanding suppression of women.

Sudanese activist Alaa Salah speaks at the United Nations, Oct. 29, 2019. U.N. TV

In the aftermath of this revolutionary struggle, women were met with brutal repression. During Khartoum’s June 3rd massacre in 2019, sexual violence and murder were used in response to the protesters. In the ongoing civil war, these tactics are once again being perpetuated, with the RSF predominantly employing murder, torture, enforced disappearance, abduction, forced confinement, sexual slavery, rape, forced marriage, and enslavement against women. The Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa (SIHA Network) has been a vocal advocate against these crimes, vehemently condemning the continued widespread of sexual violence against women in Sudan and calling for accountability for the perpetrators. Their plea for international support to establish safe spaces for survivors underscores the urgent need for intervention in the current political climate. The war is another iteration of counter-revolutionary violence against Sudanese people fighting for their freedom.

As a consequence, women in Sudan are actively contending with formidable obstacles, striving to rebuild their lives amidst significant upheaval. With 19 million people now out of education in Sudan due to the war, many women find themselves unable to complete their studies or pursue their aspirations.

One woman who wished to remain anonymous,  lost her chance to finish her education and now grapples with the daunting task of making a living during wartime. She endured the loss of most of her belongings, including merchandise, when RSF militias raided her home and looted it. “I can’t imagine a life here for myself, and I don’t know how I will finish my education or find a partner,” she lamented, capturing the uncertainty and hardship experienced by Sudanese women.

Violence against women during wartime extends well beyond Sudan’s borders globally, also reaching Palestinian women in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Since October 7th, Israel has killed nearly 34,000 Palestinians in Gaza and counting, including some 14,500 children and 9,500 women. UN Human Rights Council called for an investigation after they saw credible allegations that Palestinian women and girls have been subjected to inhumane conditions as well as sexual assaults, including rape, while in Israeli detention. The panel of experts said there was evidence of a least two cases of rape, alongside other cases of sexual humiliation and threats of rape. Reem Alsalem, the UN special rapporteur on violence against women and girls, said the true extent of sexual violence could be significantly higher.

“We might not know for a long time what the actual number of victims are,” said Alsalem, who was appointed special rapporteur by the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in 2021. “I would say that, on the whole, violence and dehumanisation of Palestinian women and children and civilians has been normalised throughout this war,” Alsalem said. The investigation also voiced concerns over reports of arbitrary executions of Palestinian women, often alongside their families and including children, in Gaza. Mirroring the brutality endured by Sudanese women, IDF soldiers have engaged in the Orientalising of Palestinian women by exposing women’s intimate clothing and posting it on social media.

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

Despite the outcry from international bodies and acknowledgment from officials such as the UK Minister for Africa, Andrew Mitchell, who regards the violence in Darfur as constituting “ethnic cleansing”, nothing substantial has changed on the ground. Moreover, attention to women’s suffering in Sudan has been exploited for political agendas, with both sides of the warring factions accused of using women’s purity as a manipulative focus to serve their own interests. 

As wars and ethnic cleansing in Sudan and Gaza endure for over a year and six months respectively, the experiences of women in these war-torn regions demand urgent attention. You can support organisations like Sudanese American Physicians Association (SAPA), Hometax Sudan, Sudan Solidarity, Darfur Women Action Group, and SIHA network to help provide vital aid and redress to the women affected by the ongoing conflicts in Sudan and Gaza. You can also read our article here to find various ways to support the Sudanese people.

The international community must heed these testimonies and provide vital aid and redress before thousands more succumb to the brutal realities of violence, including murder, rape, and starvation-induced fatalities.

Nadia Awad

Nadia Awad

Nadia Awad is a 22-year-old writer based in London, UK. Having studied History at the University of Oxford, she is now working as a journalist writing about Sudan, identity and culture.