An Opportunity to Secure Justice for Victims of Sexual Violence in Sudan

After a month-long popular uprising, Omar al-Bashir’s three-decade rule has finally ended in Sudan, with the longtime dictator now sitting in prison and his country’s generals agreeing to a three-year transition period to hand over power to civilians. The movement to bring down Bashir was inspired and spearheaded by women, who made up as many as 70% of the protesters that drove the Sudanese revolution.

Throughout Bashir’s time in power, his regime’s theocratic bent saw women across the country subjected to arbitrary arrests, detention, and imprisonment. In conflict zones like Darfur, systematic sexual violence by government-aligned forces make up part of a campaign of genocide that has killed at least 300,000 people since 2003. After Africa’s most impressive protest movements in recent memory, could those victims soon see their attackers brought to justice?

Sudanese women at the forefront

The strong and raw public sentiment with respect to the crimes committed in Darfur is evident from the outrage that greeted General Ahmed Awad Ibn Auf when he tried to take over Sudan’s transitional military council. Ibn Auf, though not indicted for war crimes like Bashir, is on a US sanctions list for supporting and managing militias accused of carrying out genocide during the conflict. The general was forced to recuse himself from power after just 24 hours in the face of defiant protesters opposing all relics of the Bashir era.

(Jesse B. Awalt/U.S. Navy)

At their head, women like engineering and architecture student Alaa Salah, who became the symbol of the revolution with an iconic photograph of her standing on a car, dressed in traditional Nubian attire and striking a defiant posture. Other leading female figures included Awadia Mahmoud Koko, who took to the streets to serve meals to protesters and vowed to continue doing so “until victory is achieved.”

A growing set of precedents

While the primary task for the Sudanese protestors is to ensure a democratic transition, a window to bring those responsible for past crimes to justice beckons. Those efforts will be able to draw from two landmark judgments in 2016 and 2017, which African rights activists hope will serve as precursors to increased accountability.

First was the 2016 conviction of Chad’s former president, Hissène Habré, for rape, torture, and crimes against humanity after 25 years of eluding justice. Habré was found personally responsible for committing rape and for forcing women into sexual slavery. Then came Djeshi ya Yesu (Army of Jesus) leader and provincial MP Frederic Batumike in the Democratic Republic of Congo, convicted alongside eleven other fighters for the rape of about 50 young girls. Justice was served more quickly in this case, as the crimes were committed between 2013 and 2016.

Both convictions were made possible by unrelenting campaigns waged by their victims. Habré’s trial proved justice and recognition are still possible decades after the fact.

Grassroots efforts in Nigeria

Of course, sexual violence is not always committed by governments or armies. The Africa-wide movement to secure justice needs to work at both national and local levels. Northern Nigeria as well is coming to terms with prevailing codes of silence, with many women now speaking out in a local version of the #MeToo campaign #ArewaMeToo.

What started as an empathetic reply to a tweet on a case of physical abuse has ballooned into a revolution against sexual violence. Though Nigeria has experienced an upsurge in cases of sexual violence against women, Arewa (a term generally used to describe northern Nigeria) is a conservative society where public discussion on sex-related topics is frowned at. So unusual is such act of bravery that Betty Abah, Director of CEE-HOPE, an NGO that focuses on the rights and welfare of vulnerable Nigerian children dubbed it as “similar to a revolution.”

This struggle extends far beyond the shores of Africa. When Congolese gynecologist Denis Mukwege received the 2018 Nobel peace prize for treating victims of sexual violence amid his country’s many conflicts, for example, he won it jointly alongside former ISIS captive and Iraqi citizen Nadia Murad.

Finding allies worldwide

Both Mukwege and Murad were recognized for their efforts in the face of considerable danger. A good part of Mukwege’s life and career has been dedicated towards reconstructive surgery and treatment for rape victims in the war-ravaged DRC, while Murad herself survived a harrowing experience and now supports women and children who are victims of abuse and human trafficking.

In her efforts, Murad has called upon previous generations of survivors. In a January event at the British parliament, Yazidi female survivors of ISIS were showcased alongside Vietnam’s ‘Lai Dai Han’ in renewed efforts to bring perpetrators of sexual violence to justice. Murad called on the international community to respect “its responsibilities to protect women from sexual violence in conflict zones.”

Thanks in part to Murad’s advocacy, the Lai Đại Hàn (a derogatory term for Vietnamese children born of Korean fathers) are finding a new voice a half-century after the fact. Through efforts by advocacy group Justice for Lai Dai Han (JLDH), which has former British foreign secretary Jack Straw as its ambassador, thousands of Vietnamese girls and women who were raped by South Korean soldiers between 1964 and 1973 are hoping for recognition by the South Korean government.

At the case of the Lai Đại Hàn shows, even the world’s richest and most developed countries are grappling with blighted histories on sexual crimes – and are still in the process of making amends.

A new day in Sudan?

Could the women of Sudan now take centre stage and set a new standard for justice? Probing sexual violence in Darfur and other conflict zones would be an excellent way for a new government to show a true break from Bashir’s regime. Victims could also gain some small measure of solace from seeing those responsible convicted and forced to provide restitution.

If they hope to see this future, Sudanese women cannot rest on their oars just yet. They will need to sustain their resilient spirit until the very end.