Explaining Away Violence Against Women in Darfur, Sudan Gov’t at UN

The Sudanese government attempted an artful campaign of misinformation by way of its presentation at the 53rd Commission on the Status of Women last week in New York. The event, hosted by the Sudanese Women Parliamentary Caucus (SWPC), focused on a government-backed study that was designed to show Khartoum to be concerned about violence against women, willing to take great pains to combat it, yet unable to find evidence of many cases in war-torn Darfur.

Despite hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths, and reports of rapes per year exceeding 10,000, eve of the government supporting the use of rape as a “tool of war”, the study counted only those cases where the government’s narrow legal definition of rape (”proven” and documented prior to any investigation) permitted actual charges and an eventual conviction. Despite the session’s being advertised as focusing on “women in conflict”, not one aspect of conflict, in the abstract or the particular, was mentioned, save the sparing now-and-then references to “the camps”.

The study lays out what its authors call “Four years of success in combating violence against women in Darfur 2004-2008?. It announces “a task force to study the role of Government and Women Organization in Women Protection Darfur Experience” and openly says the project was “a response to the false accusations stating that Sudan Government has done nothing to protect Women in Darfur”.

The study also explains actions taken by government ministries to speed women’s access to medical treatment immediately after any violent assault (”Circular No. 2?, 23 October 2004), but the provisions form a system of bureaucratic processes that are likely to impede women’s access to legal advice, medical treatment and justice. The report also included mention of a National Plan of Action (NPOA) to investigate violence against women and treat victims, as well as directives to local “police and medical workers” in the “application” of Circular No. 2. But the NPOA itself is tainted by the open direction that it be used “to respond to international claims and accusations”.

Though there are provisions for “raising awareness” about violence against women, via the Ministry of Information, a process to be organized by a dedicated special committee, the mission of countering international perceptions about extreme violence and mass rape means there is pressure to file reports of reduced or scarce violence against women (”Four years of success in combating violence against women”), incentive to not report, not address, to cover up, what violence there is.

While certain promising language was used, such as an Advisory Council on Human Rights hosting workshops in Nyala and Al Fasher discussing “Rights of victims / Violence against women in international, regional and domestic law / Legal aid and victims”, the process as described does not facilitate women coming forward for treatment or to demand justice. Workshops and protocols feature in the report’s claims about Sudan’s efforts to curb violence against women in Darfur.

Observance of the dictates of UN agencies also features prominently, though specific evidence of effective observance of the UN’s human rights standards or of any actual acts to bring the treatment of women in line with international law is totally lacking. The report and the hearing both are devoid of any reference to a large-scale investigation into allegations of mass rape or of the military carrying out acts of violence against women.

A key specific point of contention is women’s access to medical treatment and to pressing criminal charges, in the wake of an assault. According to the report, a 2006 protocol, developed in coordination with UNFPA, directed clinical treatment for rape, including a requirement “to ensure documentation of medical history” and recognize women’s right to that documentation. But all of this glosses over an underlying stain on the report and the process of organizing these new plans of action to protect women: the number of cases actually prosecuted is so low as to leave the reader in shock. (Several people stood up and walked out of the presentation at UNHQ last Thursday, as the report’s figures came to light.)

In fact, during the SWPC presentation, we were informed that women require the medical documentation in order to file charges or prompt an actual investigation. They cannot even seek justice without the medical documentation the government says women are entitled to have. Afterward, this reporter was told specifically that they cannot imagine any other way in which rape could be investigated, except in light of an immediate medical examination.

In Darfur, where all manifestations of officialdom provoke fear and suspicion among the ethnic African population, where doctors are exceedingly scarce, where confidentiality is not standard and where police may be military personnel, enemies of those seeking justice, and possibly even involved in the crimes reported, most victims of rape are, by virtue of this highly bureaucratic system, effectively barred from seeking justice at all. The number of cases of rape officially recognized by the government report for all of Darfur in 2004 were just 19. In 2005, the total was 32. And in 2006, the figure dropped to just 10 overall.

The Human Rights Watch (HRW) global report for 2007, covering the events of 2006, cites “serious abuses of civilians, including forced displacement, rape, killings, and increasing attacks on humanitarian aid workers.” It is improbable that with the mass violence in Darfur in 2006, with specific documented cases of conflict-related rape, that the figure could be as low as just 10. It would make Darfur, in the midst of a chaotic, genocidal conflict, the safest place in the world for women, in terms of risk of suffering rape. The HRW report even specifies the following:

The establishment in 2005 of a national tribunal to respond to the crimes in Darfur had no effect on the continuing impunity of militia leaders and government officials responsible for crimes against humanity.

The report delivered at the UNHQ by the panel from Sudan gave no information whatsoever regarding the involvement of officials and government-backed militia in crimes against civilians, much less of any effort to combat that problem. We also received no detailed information about the actual ongoing activities of the national tribunal, the women’s security unit or the clinics we were told were planned for community-level assistance to victims of sexual assault. Obviously, the entire report is a logical nonsequitur in that such low levels of sexual assault would imply little need for a National Plan of Action to combat it, much less the construction of dedicated confidential clinics at the community level. But while the Sudanese government’s study, with its stated mission of refuting “false” accusations from abroad, claims to demonstrate a low incidence of rape in Darfur, HRW reported in 2007 that as of 2006:

Rape and sexual violence continue to be pervasive throughout Darfur, with attacks on women and girls taking palce both in the context of hostilities between the warring parties as well as when internally displaced women and girls travel outside camp settings to collect firewood and other items. In just one example in August [2006], aid workers reported that more than 200 women and girls were sexually assaulted over a five week period in Kalma, the largest diplaced persons camp in south Darfur.

The HRW report is also explicit in charging that the ruling party “made no substantive effort to investigate or prosecute those individuals reponsible for the most serious crimes in Darfur”. The SWPC report focused on laws, plans, protocols and an “initiative” designed to start raising awareness about violence against women. Again, we saw little evidence that any substantive actions have yet been taken, and not one community center was cited as evidence of the government’s plan actually working for victims.

During the Q&A session after the presentation of the SWPC report, several questioners raised issues about the veracity or credibility of the figures reported. The extremely low rape statistics were of particular concern, and reports by Amnesty International and the BBC, both supported by documentary evidence, were decried by the presenter as distortions and lies. When pressed on the existence of “centers” where confidential medical treatment, advanced counseling services, and female-only police, would be made available to women, the presenter clarified that she had not intended to give the impression such centers (plural) existed, but that there was “one center”, whose location, functions and achievements, she did not name.

It is clear the event was staged as part of an information campaign, designed to beat back attacks on the government of Omar al-Bashir, indicted just a week before by the International Criminal Court on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity. It is also clear that the report given demonstrates a clear awareness of the need to conceal the facts on the ground, which were never mentioned during the nearly two hour presentation.

The issue of protecting women during conflict, the stated purpose of the meeting, was never directly addressed, as the conflict itself was not raised. Again, the only reference to the conflict in Darfur was the use of the word “camps” at intervals. Ultimately, it appears women in Darfur are less well served than they are hampered by the process laid out by the government for prosecuting rape allegations, and other forms of violence were left completely unaddressed by the panel.

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Originally published 18 March 2009, at CafeSentido.com

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