The rape of Darfur
|The Guardian, 18 Janvier 2006|
Now that most of the black African villages in Darfur have been destroyed, sexual violence against women and children is being used to break the will of the population that remains, says Glenys Kinnock.
Saida Abdukarim was eight months pregnant and innocently tending her vegetables when she was set-upon, raped and beaten mercilessly.
Begging for the life of her child, she was told by her attackers: "You are black so we can rape you." As they raped her and beat her with the butts of their guns she crouched over, absorbing the blows in an attempt to protect her unborn baby.
So far, her strategy appears to have worked: her baby is still alive. She, by contrast, fared much worse. She was battered so badly that she was unable to walk. All this just because she left her village for food.
Sadly, this harrowing account, as told to American journalist Nicholas Kristof, is not unique.
In Darfur, where close to 400,000 people have been killed as part of a government-sponsored program of ethnic cleansing, the brutal rape of women and children has become a weapon of war.
Sexual violence is now an integral and devastating part of the conflict aimed at breaking the will of the local people, humiliating them so that they will abandon their lands and weakening tribal ethnic lines.
Every day women in Darfur face the prospect of being raped and beaten when they leave their homes to find food or search for firewood. They face this prospect even though the international community claims that it is protecting them.
Even if they survive this trauma, as I learnt when I visited the region last year, their prospects are bleak. Many of them have had their homes destroyed and their male relatives killed.
Their villages are burned to the ground, they are forced to walk for days, carrying their children through baking heat and dust storms, to insecure refugee camps. Here, instead of finding safety and comfort, they must build their own shelters, and they are still vulnerable to attack.
These are the physical aspects of the disaster. The psychological ones run much deeper. No one can estimate how often the women in Darfur are attacked and raped because their society shames the victims into silence.
Until a few weeks ago women who sought medical help after being raped were actually arrested by the Sudanese security forces. This silence leaves its marks on the society and on the women themselves.
Not only will many of the women be unable to marry, but they also face the stigma of violation.
When the international community finally found the will to complain to the regime in Khartoum, the arrests stopped, proving we can make a difference when we can be bothered to confront Sudan's dictators.
We haven't heard much about what is happening in Darfur recently. The killing and raping continues, but the Sudanese regime has changed tactics.
It no longer needs to use its air force to bomb its own people because it has achieved its racist aim: 90% of the black African villages have been destroyed.
Now the Sudanese are using their proxies, the Janjaweed militia, to rape women whenever they venture out for firewood.
Khartoum has rightly guessed that the international community is not going to take them to task over the daily suffering of hundreds of thousands of women who cannot bear to talk about their ordeal.
Is this our response? Is this what innocent women and children deserve?
The United Nations has repeatedly refused to send peacekeepers to Darfur. However, there are other steps we can take to protect the women there.
We could send groups of policewomen from African nations to accompany the firewood-gathering trips.
Civilian police would not represent the same challenge to the national sovereignty of Sudan that soldiers would.
By training, supporting and enabling female police officers from African countries we could build the capacity of their forces, thus achieving two worthwhile aims at once.
We could help provide fuel-efficient stoves so less firewood is needed.
We could vastly increase the currently tiny number of African Union monitors in Darfur, giving them enough personnel to deter the militia from attacking women.
We could provide rape counselling and a chance to break the taboo of silence.
We could increase medical treatment for sexually transmitted diseases, as recommended by Médecins Sans Frontièrs.
Unless steps are taken now, the long-term consequences could include a generation of women unable to have children due to infection or physical damage and thousands of raped women who are pregnant and will live with the stigma all their lives, unable to get married.
These common sense steps require political will. So far, this has been lacking when it comes to Darfur.
But we must keep the pressure on the United Nations, the European Commission and our own governments until they are shamed enough to act.
Kofi Annan has described Darfur as "little short of hell on Earth". It is time to end that hell, for Saida, and for the thousands like her.
• Glenys Kinnock is MEP for Wales and a member of the European parliament's development and cooperation committee.