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Q&A: The civil servant documenting sexual violence in Sudan’s conflict

‘I made a pact: It either ends me, or I have to live trying to end it.’

A photo of dark smoke plumes rising over Khartoum Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/Reuters
Smoke billows following clashes between rival military factions in Khartoum North, on 1 May 2023. Rising cases of sexual violence have been documented in the city and others as Sudan’s conflict enters its third month.

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Conflict-related sexual violence is increasing as the fighting in Sudan rages for a third month, yet the vast majority of cases are going unreported, according to Sulima Ishaq, the director of a government unit tasked with combating violence against women.

 

Ishaq told The New Humanitarian that her group – the Combating Violence Against Women Unit – has documented over 60 incidents of sexual violence in Khartoum and Darfur but that this represents just a fraction of the total number of cases.

 

Medical services and supplies for survivors are largely unavailable, Ishaq said. “Hospitals are using the minimum medical standards for rape cases and are focusing only on preventing pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases,” she said.

 

The war in Sudan began on 15 April, pitting the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) – a paramilitary group with roots in Darfur – against the regular army. Some 24.7 million people – roughly half the population – need aid and 2.5 million have been displaced.

 

The situation is especially critical for the millions of people trapped in the capital, Khartoum. The RSF controls large parts of the city and has embedded itself within residential neighbourhoods and homes as protection from military airstrikes.

 

Ishaq said RSF fighters are behind a wave of sexual violence in Khartoum, often using rape as tool to force families from their houses. Women and girls from refugee communities and poorer families in the city are also being targeted, she said. 

 

In Darfur, meanwhile, Ishaq said RSF militias – mostly drawn from local Arab groups and accused of targeting non-Arabs – have carried out “mass rapes” in major towns, as well as physical assaults on women and girls trying to escape the fighting

 

“It is a déjà vu and a repeat of what happened during the early days of the Darfur conflict, from 2003 to 2006,” Ishaq told The New Humanitarian in an emailed Q&A.

 

In what follows, Ishaq – a psychologist and trauma specialist who took part in the protest movement that brought down former president Omar al-Bashir in 2019 – describes the patterns of violence her unit is currently documenting.

 

She also discusses the impact of the work on her personally, including the time she was arrested last year after documenting sexual violence by government security forces in the aftermath of a 2021 coup. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

 

The New Humanitarian: Could you tell us a bit about your unit and the work you do?

 

Sulima Ishaq: The Combating Violence Against Women Unit was established by a decision of the Council of Ministers in November 2005. The unit is now affiliated with the ministry of social development. Its mandate includes setting general policies, strategies, executive plans, and implementation programmes for combating violence against women and children.

 

The New Humanitarian: How many cases of sexual violence has your unit documented since the conflict began? 

 

Ishaq: We have documented 36 cases in Khartoum and 25 cases in Nyala, in South Darfur state. But what we are reporting represents just 2% of what is actually happening in the states of Sudan under the threat of sexual violence. Most of these allegations, according to survivors’ witnesses protection committees, involve the RSF.

 

The New Humanitarian: Could you tell us about some of the cases you are documenting in Khartoum?

 

Ishaq: They are mostly young women and girls, between the ages of 12-28. Sexual violence is being used as a tool to get civilians to leave their houses. There is also the exploitation of young girls who come from impoverished families and are residing in rich neighbourhoods. They are mostly from African ethnicities.

 

The video that was published by CNN was among the cases where young girls aged 15, 16, or even younger have been sexually exploited and raped by more than three soldiers. Those young girls are minors, and their vulnerability against armed ruthless soldiers doesn’t give them the capacity to provide consent. It is sexual exploitation and rape.

 

Ethiopian and Eritrean refugees residing in Omdurman and Bahri [cities next to Khartoum] have also been targeted. Eyewitnesses confirm seeing soldiers wearing RSF uniforms bringing refugee men outside their houses and then keeping women inside, where they assault them.

 

There are also women who, during their trips to find food supplies and medical support, got harassed and raped.

 

The New Humanitarian: How difficult is it for survivors in Khartoum to get the treatment and services they need?

 

Ishaq: The dynamics of the conflict in Khartoum are changing, and that changes the availability of safe passages to health facilities. All supplies in terms of the clinical management of rape are in buildings that are under control of the RSF. Hospitals are using the minimum medical standards for rape cases and are focusing only on preventing pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.

 

The New Humanitarian: What is the situation for women in Darfur? 

 

Ishaq: It’s a déjà vu and a repeat of what happened during the early days of the Darfur conflict, from 2003–2006.

 

We have documented Arab militias affiliated to the RSF, and RSF soldiers, abduct 25 women and girls in Nyala [in South Darfur state], and put them in an empty hotel called Aldaman. They raped them for days. These women and girls were aged 15-54 and resided in Otash displacement camp.

 

When attacks happened In El Geneina [in West Darfur state], there were nine cases of conflict-related sexual violence [in one area] and two [in another]. There were also mass rapes at a university building where people had been seeking safety and shelter. It is unclear how many because people were escaping in complete chaos.

 

Women and girls fleeing El Geneina to Chad were also subject to sexual harassment and abuse through personal and body searches by RSF soldiers. Their genitalia were touched, they were physically assaulted, and a number of women were killed for no reason.

 

The New Humanitarian: What impact does this work have on you personally? 

 

Ishaq: What is certain is that I am not very popular with [different] groups. Being outspoken about issues related to sexual violence within a rape culture society is not allowed. 

 

I have given myself to the cause, but I cannot deny my own avoidances and personal fears. The last time I was able to provide mental health services and trauma therapy was after documenting the sexual violence that happened on 3 June 2019 [when security forces led by the RSF killed and raped pro-democracy demonstrators]. I was a survivor of that massacre too.

 

I was also present in Darfur travelling all over the region between 2004 and 2006. I saw a lot, and this actually shaped my career path and choices. It gave me a personal attachment to documenting conflict-related sexual violence. I made a pact: It either ends me, or I have to live trying to end it.

 

The New Humanitarian: You were interrogated last year by the government because of your work. Could you explain what happened?

 

Ishaq: We had announced publicly and through the formal channels cases of confirmed sexual violence involving seven young women in the aftermath of a demonstration on 18 December 2021. Three months later, [the UN Sudan envoy] Volker Perthes made a report to the Security Council [that included the information we had documented]. I was then summoned for investigation. The allegation was that I was spying and destroying the constitutional order. There was huge support for me, at the international and national levels.

 

This project was funded by the H2H Network's H2H Fund, which is supported by UK aid.

 

Edited by Philip Kleinfeld.

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