Sudan’s women must be central to any political solution

Sudan’s women must be central to any political solution
6 min read

Nada Mustafa Ali

25 July, 2023
As sexual violence continues amidst ongoing conflict in Sudan, Women and other minorities must be included in any efforts to resolve the current political situation, argues Nada Mustafa Ali. The question of gender cannot be ignored.
Earlier conflicts in Sudan and elsewhere in the region have revealed the resourcefulness, power, and creativity of women in the face of adversity, writes Nada Mustafa Ali.

Over three months ago, violence erupted from conflict between Sudan’s army and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) paramilitary groups in Merowe, and then in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum. Violence also re-erupted in Darfur shortly thereafter. The conflict has resulted in a mounting disaster that involves thousands of killings and injuries, sexual and gender-based violence, as well as the displacement of almost three million into safer parts of the country or across the borders to neighbouring countries.

It is thus not surprising that many commentators, analysts, political and policy actors keep pointing to the urgent need to maintain a laser focus on ending the war, addressing its consequences, ensuring justice, and supporting a process that culminates in a civilian-led democratic order. While all this is important, it is also crucial to think about the how this would happen, and to acknowledge that war, peace, social justice, and political processes are all gendered, racialised, and embedded in other hierarchies. This will enable a better response to this war and to others, and more meaningful solutions that involve the participation of the diverse people of Sudan, especially women, at all levels.

Developments during the early weeks of the war shed light on why it is important to pay attention to gender equality, and to the experiences of women. One of the first documented civilian ‘casualties’ that happened when violence erupted, was the killing of a woman in labour on her way to a hospital in Khartoum to give birth. When Rapid Support Forces (RSF) soldiers reportedly stopped the vehicle she was in, the driver proceeded to the hospital, so they shot at them and killed her, along with her father who was also in the car. Doctors had to perform a c-section to deliver the baby. Unlike many other forms of medical procedures, it is impossible to reschedule or postpone labour.

Many of the tens of thousands of pregnant women in Khartoum went into early labour because of fear and trauma, in hospitals that were working at less than 30% of their capacity.

Another example is that sexual violence in greater Khartoum, and again in Darfur – especially in Al-Gueneina – has been an expected feature of this conflict.  On 20 June, the director of Sudan’s Combating Violence Against Women Unit stated that there were 61 reported cases of SGBV in Khartoum and Darfur. This is, however, a conservative figure because of low reporting due to the stigma and shame associated for victims and survivors of sexual violence, rather than against perpetrators.

The number of women victims and survivors of sexual violence is high because since the first few weeks of the conflict, women active on the ground and healthcare workers shared information about numerous cases of rape and other forms of sexual violence against women of all ages in greater Khartoum, especially against young women who often face abduction, and rape by RSF soldiers in abandoned buildings. This is reminiscent of the atrocities that occurred in Darfur since 2003, South Sudan in the 1980s and 90s, and in other war-affected parts of the country where women and others in their communities lost their lives, livelihoods, were displaced, and were also at the receiving end of sexual and gender-based violence.

Voices

Earlier wars in Sudan, and conflicts across the Middle East and Africa teach us that the impact of such violence will likely last for generations to come, in the same way that militarisation often outlives armed conflicts; especially in the absence of appropriate post-war interventions.

The war has also had a devastating impact on other groups that had faced social and economic exclusion prior to the war. Those include older citizens, many of whom died during long journeys to neighbouring countries. Children in low-income areas of Khartoum had also died from malnutrition. Fifty of the children and infants in Al-Maygoma Center for orphans died before a local organisation managed to evacuate them to wad Medani.

Women, and other local actors and movements, including neighbourhood-level resistance committees, and cooperatives of women’s street vendors have been active in addressing some of the most difficult challenges that their communities faced.

Earlier conflicts in Sudan and elsewhere in the region have revealed the resourcefulness, power, and creativity of women in the face of adversity. Women often build powerful movements for social change and democratic transformation, as well as peace-making, while also tending to their communities’ needs for survival.

Indeed, the role that women from across Sudan played in the 2018/2019 uprising has been well-documented, and much celebrated. It is therefore not surprising that women at the grassroots level have been supporting communities in women-only cooperatives and as part of neighbourhood-level committees, and that women activists are now regrouping and strategising on ways to address the current challenges.

While initially a concern with the gender-specific impact of the war on women and girls, and on marginalised social groups, was absent from much of the public and policy discourse on the crisis in Sudan, this is gradually changing. There is currently more attention to sexual and gender-based violence against women in areas affected by the violence, including greater Khartoum. There are also small-scale initiatives to support victims and survivors of gender-based violence, including through trauma counselling. Women’s organisations and movements are also increasingly more involved – albeit in limited ways – in initiatives to end the war.

Sudan’s diverse women are and should be central to any political solution. Our voices should inform peace-building and post-conflict reconstruction. For this to happen, Sudan’s political establishment and some of the larger civil society platforms will need to cast a critical eye on ways some of their practices may have hindered Sudan’s path to civilian-led, democratic transformation. Rethinking dominant frameworks will help challenge militarism, elitism, and misogyny in the country. It will also help render future political processes transparent, inclusive and sustainable.

Nada Mustafa Ali is a Sudanese feminist researcher and activist who teaches in the Women’s and Gender Studies Department at the University of Massachusetts Boston in the USA. Dr. Ali has written and published extensively in Arabic and English. She is the author of Gender, Race and Sudan's Exile Politics: Do We All Belong to this Country? (Lexington Books in 2015).  She is a Fellow of the Rift Valley Institute, and a Board Member of the Life and Peace Institute, the Massachusetts Sudanese Community Association, & the African Feminist Initiative.

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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