Women in Sudan: The backbone of society in the face of war and famine

7 min read
12 April, 2024

“I know a 30-something woman from Al Geneina [in West Darfur] whose kids were shot dead in front of her eyes while they were on their way to the border with Chad trying to escape from the country,” begins Dallia Abdelmoneim, a political commentator from Khartoum.

Dallia, who currently works at the Sudanese think-tank Fikra for Studies and Development, tells The New Arab that the young woman, a lawyer and activist, now helps refugees in Chad offering them legal assistance and ensuring they have access to food and healthcare.

"Millions of women in Sudan have been bearing the brunt of violence and displacement since the war began — women and girls have been forced to leave their homes, subjected to forced labour, targeted for sexual violence, rape and sex slavery, with gender-based violence being specifically used as a weapon of war"

Her story is familiar to thousands of women in Sudan, where a long-running rift between the country's army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) erupted into all-out war on 15 April 2023, leaving thousands dead, displacing millions and severely derailing a fragile transition to civilian rule.

Yet, the women of Sudan continue to stand resilient amid ongoing fighting, holding their communities together as the nearly year-long war in Sudan sees no truce, and the country faces the threat of famine. 

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“Yes, this war has taken a lot from us, from Sudanese women, but Sudanese women refuse any setbacks,” said Sarya Yassin, a Sudanese radio anchor and activist, in a recent panel discussion, adding that women from across different educational and social backgrounds have lost everything.

“But they’re still trying to make life possible, each in their own way,” she said.

Millions of women in Sudan have been bearing the brunt of violence and displacement since the war began — women and girls have been forced to leave their homes, subjected to forced labour, targeted for sexual violence, rape and sex slavery, with gender-based violence being specifically used as a weapon of war.

Additionally, they have experienced enormous challenges in accessing protection services and essential healthcare, especially sexual and reproductive health services.

The lack of security further exposes them to violence and other gross violations amid ongoing conflict and forcible displacement.

Almost a year into the war, the women of Sudan are struggling to survive in extremely dire humanitarian conditions after seeking escape from conflict-ridden regions.

Having lost their livelihoods and supportive family members, they have coped by any possible means with the dramatic turn of events in their homeland and turned into heads of their households with children to take care of.

“As the war erupted, women were mostly the ones who took the decision to flee while men would stay behind to protect their homes,” Salma Abdalla, a Norway-based Sudanese political scientist, told The New Arab.

She noted how her female compatriots have demonstrated self-reliance through all stages of displacement in the face of prevailing insecurity and increased poverty.

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The political researcher stressed that with the conflict raging and prices skyrocketing, displacement costs have been “very high.”

Women have commonly used their savings or sold their valuables to cover their journey to reach safer locations, with most of them being unable to afford to move into rented accommodation, instead resorting to either living with relatives or finding refuge in overcrowded shelters.

Continuous fighting in Sudan, which was already one of the world’s poorest countries before the war, has disrupted all economic activity, caused price hikes, and obstructed or prevented the flow of humanitarian aid, amid a shortage of foreign currency and a large national debt.

“Women have found themselves in a situation where they have to look for ways to provide for themselves and their kids," Salma added.

“They are now the decision-makers, are learning new skills and taking up any work opportunities to fend for their families.”

She mentioned her cousins who ran a small business selling homemade pastries in the city of Wad Madani, 200km south of Khartoum for five months after they fled the capital before being displaced again.

High-skilled workers such as doctors, nurses and teachers would find work, although paid less, whilst many more would move to major urban areas to sell products on the local market.

The majority of displaced women otherwise depend on cash sent by relatives or friends abroad, except in times of network blackout cuts which freeze electronic financial transfers. A near-total communication shutdown in February cut off millions throughout the country for weeks.

Despite all the difficulties, Sudanese women have actively engaged in community-led initiatives to alleviate the suffering of their people.

Emergency response rooms, set up by activists in Khartoum after the war began last April, have been working hard to feed thousands of residents in homes and shelter centres through community kitchens.

Women have headed these kitchens in a collective effort to distribute food free of charge to people who have remained besieged in Khartoum state since the start of the hostilities. 

Through the help of hundreds of volunteers moving from one neighbourhood to another to serve one meal per day, dozens of female volunteer leaders coordinate all the efforts.

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“They are involved in reaching out for donations, raising funds from local charities, collecting and cooking food,” Salam explained. 

The communications blackout that came into being last month stopped cash transfers from coming in and forced most of the communal kitchens to suspend their charity work. They have partially resumed activities since network coverage was restored in parts of Sudan last week.

Abdelmoneim observed how her female fellow citizens have always gone “beyond what anyone is capable of doing,” given the tremendous resilience they have built after enduring years of discrimination and violence since the days of long-time dictator Omar al-Bashir.

“Women and girls in Sudan do so much. They’ve always fought to get more rights. They’re also helping to keep the social fabric somehow connected,” the Sudanese commentator said.

She highlighted the pivotal role played by women in holding communities together in times of crisis through different kinds of involvement, from providing aid and medical care to recording rights violations, assisting victims, protecting at-risk individuals, and speaking out against abuses.

“Women in Sudan are very active, whether they’re breadwinners in their families, reporting events on the ground, helping people stuck in conflict zones, or leading solidarity actions,” Omnia Mustafa, an international relations graduate who has been displaced three times in less than a year, told The New Arab

In Wad Madani, the first destination for Khartoum families fleeing for their safety in the early weeks of the war, she stayed with her parents at her aunt’s.

During that time, her mother, a consultant psychologist, volunteered for the Ministry of Health giving free psychological support to Sudanese IDPs who were dealing with mental health conditions caused by war trauma, including female victims of abuse and trafficking. She also trained youths volunteering to provide mental health emergency response.

“Women are the ones glueing families together, bringing them financial support as well as strength and positivity,” the 21-year-old emphasised.

Omnia, who currently lives in the River Nile State, less than 300km northeast of Khartoum, posts frequently about Sudan. She gained attention and followers on her social media accounts after she posted a video on TikTok, which got 290,000 likes and thousands of comments, before being displaced for the second time in December.

@zeirra7 #Sudan_War #Khartoum #Sudan #Update #freesudan #keepeyesonsudan #fypシ゚viral #fyp ♬ original sound - Zeirra

That’s how she started “getting the word out” about her country by sharing news and her direct wartime experience.

With the fighting between rival military factions protracting in Sudan, a hunger crisis is looming for 18 million people, with close to five million of them at risk of “catastrophic” hunger in the coming months in a country that has been largely inaccessible to aid groups.

More than eight million people have been forced to flee within the war-torn nation and to neighbouring countries, while half of the population – around 25 million people – require humanitarian assistance and protection.

Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist currently based in Tunis

Follow her on Twitter: @AlessandraBajec