In Sudan, women's bodies have long been the battleground

Driven by desperation and the horror of nearly a year of war, images of women firing guns during combat training with the Sudanese Army contradict perceptions that they are passive actors during the bloody conflict between Sudan’s two warring generals. 

The fierce and ongoing battle between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and Rapid Support Forces (RSF) is one of the most underreported conflicts in the world today. Stories of sexual slavery markets in Darfur, the unprovoked kidnapping, rape, mutilation and murder of female civilians and, more recently, reports that the RSF raped patients and their nurses during hospital raids in Algezeira state, are just some of the examples of the inexplicable violence against women and girls in particular.  

Women’s readiness for military mobilization must therefore be read in the context of this widespread fear, where sexual violence is being used as a tool of subjugation and control. The army’s failure to protect women and the state's indifference to their struggles – both now and throughout Sudan’s history – has left armed self-defense as the only means of protection. Sexual violence in Sudan is part and parcel of the wider state of lawlessness that has ensued since the latest outbreak of war, in which everything is to be bought, sold, and consumed – women's bodies included.

During the first nine months of the war in Sudan, reports of rampant sexual abuse as a weapon war were rife. In a widely circulated social media post, an RSF member boasted that women, property and wealth in captured areas are considered war booty and, as per the law of combat, the militia’s exclusive and indisputable right. 

Contrary to public belief, conscription in Sudan is not the preserve of men alone. Sudanese women have held their spaces within warring factions since the early days of the 1990s Islamist regime. Their role stretches from that of pious females and obedient wives to, when called upon, a resource to be mobilised.

Sexual violence in Sudan is part and parcel of the wider state of lawlessness that has ensued after the war, in which everything is to be bought, sold, and consumed – women's bodies included.

In her award-winning report on the epidemic of sexual violence in Sudan since the outbreak of war last April, Sudanese journalist Dalia Abdelmonim describes how women navigate the terrains of insecurity and lawlessness that have engulfed Khartoum.

‘Don’t let the other soldiers see.’ That's the desperate plea of one rape victim quoted in the report, whose testimony exposes the boundless injustices in a war where rape is better than gang rape and where there is no hope for recourse in the near future, if ever.

A history of violence revived 

These stories, grim and impenetrable, invoke memories of a long and systematic history of violence against women in Sudan. In 2014, Sudanese army troops carried out mass rapes of 221 women and girls in the town of Tabit in North Darfur. Then-President Omer Al-Bashir was indicted with war crimes and crimes against humanity, earning him the title of 'the only sitting president wanted by the International Criminal Court’.

But this horrific incident was neither the first nor the last. All fighting groups, parastate and rebels, systematically target women and girls during war. In May 2023, less than a month after the war broke out, a group of soldiers from Sudanese Alliance Forces kidnapped and forcefully detained seven young women in ElGenina in west Darfur. Held in sexual slavery, these young students were forced to cook and clean for their captives for two months. When the RSF raided the city the following month, stories of Arab fighters targeting black Masalit women disappeared amid the news of mass forced displacement to neighbouring Chad.

The systematic use of the law to criminalize and harass women activists into subjugation and extinguish political mobilization is well documented. In Khartoum in June 2019, the RSF committed what came to be dubbed the ‘June massacre, where more than 200 people were murdered, 70 women were raped and an unknown number of people were 'disappeared’, likely having also been subjected to torture and sexual assault. This massacre unfolded with the blessing of the army, who failed to intervene to protect the public, and under the watchful eye of the state, which has yet to address the crimes or bring the perpetrators to justice.

To this day, no individual or entity has been held accountable for these acts of violence.

The vulnerability-victim cycle

Government security forces have used sexual violence against female protestors as an intimidation tactic. The failure to pass laws criminalizing rape and all forms of sexual and gender-based violence has meant both the public and uniformed personnel can act with impunity. Under the Sudanese criminal code, rape and all other forms of physical violence are treated with equal consideration.

The infamous Public Order Law (PLO), repealed in 2020 yet still present in many forms, is a relic of Islamic law. It sought to control women and ethnic minorities by centering female bodies as sites of sexual control, where the smallest diversions from the conservative norm are criminalized.

The PLO granted authorities wide ranging powers to arrest and detain people on the pretext of ‘disorder’. This disproportionately affected women – especially political activists, who were frequently targeted and persecuted. Stories abound of women detained, publicly berated and humiliated before being tried and jailed. An extreme example is the case of Safia Ishag, a political activist and artist now in exile, who was gang raped in 2011 by members of the security police while in their custody. As in most other cases of sexual violence, none of the perpetrators have been brought to justice.

When Safia's case made public news, there was a popular backlash and authorities questioned the validity of her claims. It is unsurprising, therefore, that Sudan’s feminist movement is still stuck campaigning for the credibility of rape and sexual assault survivors.

Sudan's family law also gives sweeping powers to male relatives over women, and fails to explicitly define the limit of male guardianship. Women in Sudan can neither marry nor divorce without the legal intervention of a male guardian, which often causes struggles over custody of children.

All fighting groups, parastate and rebels, systematically target women and girls during war.

Despite the democratic wave that swept the country after the 2018 revolution, a 2020 report from UNFPA cited physical and sexual violence, as well as restrictions on freedom of movement as some of the issues affecting women respondents.

When I left Sudan in April 2023 after the war broke out, a choice I made for myself and on behalf of my family, I met many women who either could not leave Khartoum because they were not given permission by their male relatives – or, as a result of the legacy of inequality, because they did not possess the financial means and know-how to escape conflict.

Good victim, bad victim

Sudan now faces the world’s largest internal displacement crisis. At least 25 million people are hungry or malnourished. The country has become a lawless wasteland where all forms of order have broken down. The capital Khartoum is territorially divided and governed by warring groups. Checkpoints and other forms of roadblocks dictate entry and exit routes, disrupting access to the already feeble availability of humanitarian aid.

Despite the endless suffering, the topic of violence, especially rape and by extension the means of protection, where they do exist, are highly politicized. Anti-RSF popular rhetoric places larger emphasis on their crimes against women because it aids in their criminalization by the international community. Meanwhile, community militarization embodies patriarchal messages as captured in the dominant war slogan: 'our dignity lies in defending the virtue of our women'.

While these approaches do avail some consideration to the violence that has befallen women in the absence of the law, they also use the purity of women's bodies as a measure of triumph, through which ideals of masculinity, integrity, and other political agendas are pursued.

Consequently, the debate around sexual violence has become captured by either side of the warring parties to rally popular support for their violent interventions. On the one hand, the anti-RSF camp accentuates cases of rape by reporting and generating a positive discourse around their criminality, while on the other, the Sudanese Army's crimes, both past and present, have been whitewashed as it is hailed as a national institution mandated to defend the masses.

Women in Sudan today are once again the victims of mass atrocities committed by armed actors in pursuit of political and economic gain. Any post war reconstruction efforts will not be complete without substantial women’s rights reforms. Until then, victims of rape and other acts of sexual violence will continue to be silenced, their ordeals soon forgotten, just like the heinous act that befell them. 

Raga Makawi will be speaking at Think Global Act Global: Internationalism for New Times, an activist conference in London on Saturday 23 March.