This case note is a part of our series of case notes that document the occurrence of sexual violence in violent conflict. The case note contains explicit mentions of different forms of sexual assault. Reader discretion is advised.
Background of the conflict
The War in Darfur began in February 2003. Known as the Land Cruiser War, the major armed conflict in the Darfur region in Sudan started when the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), two rebel groups, began fighting with the government of Sudan, for its oppression of Darfur’s non-Arab population. In response, the government embarked on a campaign of ethnic cleansing targeting the non-Arab population in Darfur, culminating in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians. Following all the tensions, thousands of Darfuris fled.
The Sudanese military, police, and the Sudanese militia group called the Janjaweed – which comprised Arabized indigenous Africans and a group of Bedouin from the region of northern Rizeigat – on the one side, fought the rebel groups that comprised non-Arab Muslim ethnic groups such as the Fur, Zaghawa, and Masalit. The Janjaweed attacked villages and murdered whole communities, and carried out a campaign of systematic sexual violence targeting women from non-Arab ethnic groups in the region. While the Sudanese government denied that it supported the Janjaweed, there has been documented evidence to the contrary, indicating that the government provided weapons and financial support in order for it to execute its attacks. Research showed that the Sudanese government fell back on its profits from its oil wealth to fund its military attacks on Darfur.
In the meantime, there was major unrest in other parts of Sudan, culminating in the birth of South Sudan in July 2011, following a vote to secede in January that year.
To address the escalating violence, the African Union and the United Nations established a joint peacekeeping mission in the region, called the UNAMID. Eventually, the Sudanese government and the JEM signed a ceasefire agreement in February 2010, tentatively committing to pursue peace. However, talks failed when there were accusations against the Sudanese army for having launched air strikes and raids against a village – which led the JEM to boycott the negotiations. In August 2019, the Draft Constitutional Declaration was signed by the military and civilian representatives. According to this, pursuing a peace process culminating in a peace agreement in Darfur and all other areas of the armed conflict was mandatory within the first six months of the 39-month long transition to a democratic civilian government. In August 2020, a comprehensive peace agreement was signed between the Sudanese authorities and several rebel factions to end armed hostilities.
Following an arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court in 2009, Sudan’s president, Omar al-Bashir, was indicted for genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court. al-Bashir was the first sitting head of state to have a warrant against him by the ICC.
The Prevalence of Sexual Violence
The Janjaweed committed rape and sexual violence targeting women and girls. Many of the girls and women in the region had to walk long distances to gather water and firewood, and in some instances, food. This was the case both in the villages they lived in and in the refugee / internally displaced person camps alike, and in the long distances they travelled, women were all the more vulnerable to sexual violence. According to the Physicians for Human Rights, a massive 82 percent of the women who relied on them for treatment after facing rape reported having faced sexual assault while going about their everyday activities. In many instances, the Janjaweed raped women and marked them with wounds in order to weaponize social stigma against them and their communities – they knew full well that the women would not be accepted by their families after facing rape.
In terms of actual numbers, there are no concrete reports with exact numbers because of the underreporting as a result of stigma and challenges particular to speaking out. Reports indicate that several women had forced pregnancies owing to conflict-related rape. This created a difficult paradox. An Amnesty International Report indicated that the Sudanese believe that unwanted sex cannot cause pregnancy – so if a woman did become pregnant, they assumed it was not through rape. However, if she was unmarried and became pregnant, she could not return to her community unless she rejected the child. Several women who were pregnant through rape were also arrested because pregnancy outside of marriage is illegal in Darfur.
The Strategic Use of Sexual Violence
Sexual violence was used as a means to commit genocide and ethnic cleansing, marked by deliberately expressed intentions to impregnate women and force the birth of “mixed” babies. Sexual violence was also used to cause community-level destruction and to break down the targeted societies. By targeting women in the region, they aimed to weaponize stigma and socio-cultural attitudes toward women against the women and the community. As a result of the stigma, several survivors had to leave their communities and homes and build their own huts, to live away from their families. They were never accepted back into their families or communities. Further, there were instances where sexual violence was used to cause food insecurity, where women were raped and prevented from cultivating and cooking their own food.
Rights Group Says Sudan's Government Aided Militias (Read)
Jem Darfur rebels snub Sudan peace talks over 'attacks' (Read)
Sudan signs peace deal with rebel groups from Darfur (Read)
Al Bashir Case The Prosecutor v. Omar Hassan Ahmad Al Bashir ICC-02/05-01/09 (Read)
Physicians for Human Rights. (2009). Nowhere to Turn. (Read)
Nora Boustany (2007). “Janjaweed Using Rape as 'Integral' Weapon in Darfur, Aid Group Says” (Read)
Amnesty International (2004). “Sudan: Darfur: Rape As A Weapon Of War: Sexual Violence And Its Consequences.” (Read)
Documented by Kirthi Jayakumar