Sudan : War and rape in Darfur

WASHINGTON — It's a perennial problem. War occurs. Women are raped. Reporters flood the war zone looking for raped women. War subsides. The international community and the journalists lose interest in women's issues. Women continue to be raped. No one cares.

It has been nearly 10 years since wartime violence against women became a recurring part of popular consciousness, brought to the fore by genocide in Rwanda and the crises in Bosnia and Kosovo. The continuing genocide in Sudan has catalyzed the process again — concentrated attention on violence against women coupled with a distinct lack of long-term understanding that violence against women, including rape, is something that women all over the world live with in peace as in war.

Yes, women and girls are being raped and gang-raped in Darfur. Yes, journalists and everybody else should pay attention. Efforts should be made to prevent this, one of many human rights abuses being perpetrated by the Sudanese government.

But women are not being raped in Darfur because there is a war. Women in Darfur are being raped for the same reason that women everywhere are raped: because there is global impunity for violence committed by men against women. The FBI estimates that four women die every day in the United States at the hands of their male partners. In South Africa one in four men claim to have raped a woman before they were eighteen. And this is just the beginning of massive statistics regarding male violence against women.

How can we handle the issue of violence against women in Darfur differently from the way we dealt with rape in Rwanda, Bosnia and Kosovo?

First, efforts can be made now to report on the rape of women as a continuing problem. Journalists can give context to their Darfur rape stories by reminding readers that violence against women occurs during war because it occurs during peace. It is not something that happens because of war but rather something that continues even during war.

Second, journalists can report on male-on-male sexual violence. Men also rape men and boys, and this does appear to be a heightened activity in war. Journalists can probe why male violence, against women and men, is so accepted as standard behavior that it is rarely questioned or reported on.

Third, the international community, working with the internally displaced population in Sudan and with the refugees that have fled Sudan to neighboring Chad, can begin to allocate significant financing for long-term programs that work to prevent violence and rape by targeting violent male behavior as unacceptable.

Fourth, international organizations working in Chad and Sudan can hire enough women to make up a legitimate 50 percent of their decision-making staffs (secretarial does not count), both international and national.

Fifth, experts on gender-mainstreaming and sexual and gender-based violence can be hired to immediately begin working with the Sudanese refugees in Chad and with the internally displaced population in Sudan.

In a recent United Nations report, "Women, War and Peace," a Kosovar woman claimed: "It is really amazing that the international community cared only about Kosovar women when they were being raped. Now we see they don't really give a damn about us."

International agencies working with the women in Darfur and the refugee population in Chad, as well as the journalists covering this latest genocide, can take steps now to ensure that once the war is over, Darfur women will not wonder why no one cares about the violence and rape they will continue to endure.


Lori Handrahan is a research fellow at Oxford University's International Gender Center and at the CUNY Center in Washington.