Sexual violence and conflict in Sudan: A war on the bodies of women and girls

Sexual violence and conflict in Sudan: A war on the bodies of women and girls

Sexual violence and conflict in Sudan: A war on the bodies of women and girls
Sexual violence and conflict in Sudan: A war on the bodies of women and girls

United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA)

Aisha* lost both her parents last year, aged just 17. “I was left alone at home. I couldn’t reach out to any of my relatives because the situation was extremely tense,” she told UNFPA, the United Nations sexual and reproductive health agency.

“Then an armed militia took over my neighbourhood [in Khartoum], turning it into a stronghold and restricting all movement.” 

The conflict in Sudan has ground on for over a year and spiralled into a humanitarian catastrophe. Estimates are that up to 12 million people have fled their homes, 2 million of them to unstable neighbouring countries, and famine is looming in multiple areas. Reports have soared of appalling sexual violence, wielded as a weapon to terrorize communities and exert control. 

Aisha only left her house for essential supplies and food. “Although the soldiers saw me moving around, they did not harass or harm me at first.”

“One day, two soldiers came to check who was still in the area. They knocked on my door and asked if anyone else was in the house. Terrified, I told them I was alone. They seemed to be searching for fighters and left.” 

But they would later return – this time without knocking. “They came in and pointed a gun at me. They told me not to scream or say anything – then they began to take off my clothes. One soldier held the gun while the other raped me, and then they took turns.”

A flight to safety

The horror didn’t end there for Aisha.

“The next day, they came back with two more soldiers and repeated the assault.” They would not leave Aisha’s home for four days. When they finally left, she escaped to a friend’s house. “My friends were preparing to leave – I didn’t tell them what had happened to me, and we travelled together to Kassala State.”

Across the world, sexual violence in conflicts has surged to record levels. Yet reported attacks are only a fraction of the real number, as many survivors don’t come forward for fear of facing stigma, retribution or being revictimized. Often there is nowhere to report the crimes, as protection mechanisms and the health system have all but broken down. 

For Aisha, the situation only grew more complex. “In Kassala, I discovered I was pregnant,” she told UNFPA. “My friend’s family had decided to leave, but when they found out they refused to take me with them. Alone and knowing no one, I tried to stay in a displacement camp, but they turned me away.”

With no means of looking after herself or anywhere to seek shelter or health care, Aisha grew increasingly distraught. 

“Those days were incredibly tough, and I even attempted suicide. One day a family told me about a safe space for women and girls in Kassala, suggesting they might help me. When I arrived, I saw a doctor and a psychologist. They had me sent to a hospital and gave me some money and temporary shelter.”

The safe space is one of 64 supported by UNFPA across Sudan that provide medical attention, shelter and counselling for survivors of gender-based violence. Although Aisha found help and healing, with her due date fast approaching she is in urgent need of longer-term support. “I will be alone with my child, with no money and no place to go.”

Rippling consequences 

In Darfur, Nisreen* and her 14-year-old daughter were ambushed by armed men while they were out collecting firewood. Despite her attempts to shield her daughter, Nisreen told UNFPA, “the soldiers attacked me until I collapsed, then they raped my daughter before fleeing. Some villagers discovered us and rushed us to the nearest health centre.” 

“When I woke up, I realized I had lost the use of my legs. Medical exams confirmed that my nervous system had been irreversibly damaged; I’m paraplegic.” 

UNFPA moved Nisreen and her daughter to a safe space and provided clinical and psychological post-rape health care. Her daughter also underwent a fistula repair surgery for an internal tear she suffered during the assault. 

An estimated 6.7 million people are at risk of gender-based violence in Sudan, with displaced, refugee and migrant women and girls particularly vulnerable. Most health centres in conflict-affected areas have been destroyed, looted or are struggling to function as staff are displaced and medicines and supplies are running out. 

Over the past year, UNFPA reached more than 600,000 people with gender-based violence response services and supported 112,000 people to access medical and sexual and reproductive health services – but much more is needed as the crisis deepens by the day.

Following their treatment, Nisreen and her daughter received a grant to start their own small business venture; they set up a kiosk in their town to sell groceries, paving the way for a new beginning despite the horrors they had faced.

“I thought it was the end for us, but then we found hope in the most unexpected places,” said Nisreen. “Opening the kiosk was a turning point: It gave us a sense of purpose and the means to support ourselves. We found a way to move forward.”

*Names changed for privacy and protection

Distributed by APO Group on behalf of United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).