Last edited: March 27, 2005

First the Women Are Raped, Then They Are Jailed, Fined

Assaults in Sudan are used deliberately to fragment community, aid worker says

The Globe and Mail, March 5, 2005

By Katharine Houreld

BENDISI, SUDAN—Fatima was 15 when she was gang-raped in front of her mother. Seven months later, the heavily pregnant schoolgirl was arrested by the Sudanese police and charged with fornication. They threatened to whip her if she didn’t pay a fine.

“They asked me who was the father of my baby,” she said, twisting a piece of paper between her fingers. “I told them I didn’t know. There were seven men on horses. Three of them raped me and four of them beat my mother. We had gone to get onions from our farm.”

After she had spent three days in prison with no food and nothing to sleep on but the bare earth, Fatima’s father collected money from relatives. Last week, he finally paid 12,000 ($60) of the 20,000 dinars that the police demanded. “The police said he must pay the rest by the time my baby is delivered or I will be whipped.”

Since 2003, when local African tribes took up arms against perceived neglect and discrimination by the central government, thousands of women have been raped. Many of the victims have been branded to ensure that they never escape the stigma.

Most of the women simply identify their attackers as janjaweed, a generic term for the nomadic, Arabic-speaking gunmen who often work in concert with the Sudanese armed forces.

The nomads have a history of conflict with the African tribes over land rights but the government’s twin gifts of impunity and automatic weapons escalated traditional tensions into all-out war.

Médecins sans frontières (Doctors without Borders) has treated nearly 400 Darfur women for rape in the past six months, although they say the stigma of being victims prevents many from reporting the crime.

“Rape is being used as a deliberate way to fragment the family and community,” said one local aid worker, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Many of these women are raped by soldiers and police as well [as the janjaweed].”

In Bendisi, a town in the west, hundreds of women like Fatima have been jailed after they became pregnant by their attackers. The police typically demand fines ranging from 15,000 to 25,000 dinars. Often, they rape the women again while they are held in prison, under the pretext of interrogating them.

“The police told me that I could pay 15,000 dinars or I could be raped 40 times,” said one 18-year-old, huddled in a corner. “They will take my money now but they never heard my cry when the janjaweed came for me.”

Other women confirmed that the police had had sex with them while in prison, promising shorter sentences or smaller fines.

During the day, the prisoners are often forced to work as domestic labour, carrying water, cooking or cleaning for their jailers. The women are charged with having extramarital sex, despite the fact that under Islamic law, a woman who is raped is not considered guilty of a crime.

Some of the women, their houses destroyed and their family dead, have no one to help them. Sixteen-year-old Hawa, gang-raped by three men while collecting firewood, cradles her two-month old son Hamoudi in a ragged green blanket. Her own shawl has several holes in it. She is sleeping rough after her grandmother threw her out because she became pregnant.

“The police held me for 10 days in a cell. They didn’t give me any food and there was nowhere to sleep,” she whispered, tucking the blanket around the face of her sleeping son.

“I told them I have no money. They whipped me on my chest and my back. I was bleeding a lot.” She was eight months pregnant, and terrified.

Even after her punishment, Hawa’s troubles are not over. The police are still demanding 20,000 dinars. Four times a week, with her son strapped to her back, she and a group of other women in the same predicament walk several kilometres over a mountain to find gravel.

They load heavy buckets filled with stones onto their heads and return to make cement to sell in the marketplace. So far, Hawa has made 2,000 dinars in two months.

Every time she leaves the confines of the town she is vulnerable again. Many of these women have been raped several times: once when their village was attacked and later when they venture out of the town to gather water or firewood.

“The janjaweed came to my village in August, 2003,” said 25-year-old Nadifa. “During the fight, four men came to my tukel [hut]. They said you can choose, we can kill you or we will rape you. Then four of them tied my hands and legs so I was spread-eagled between two beds. They raped me and left me tied up for the whole day. They kept coming back. At the end of the day they let me go and burnt my house.”

Still traumatized by the attack in August of 2003, Nadifa joined the other 1.85 million people displaced by the conflict. She fled to nearby Bendisi for security, but last July, she was raped again as she gathered firewood on the outskirts of town.

After she became pregnant, the police arrested her and kept her in a cell for two days. Her neighbours, themselves displaced and impoverished, scraped together 15,000 dinars to release her but the police have kept her name on a list. They promised to visit her again once her baby has been born.

At least some officials in the Sudanese government are aware of what is going on. When a judge visited from Garsila, a nearby town where similar cases have been reported, he merely cautioned the officers to stop recording women’s names lest the list should be used as evidence against them. Yet the arrests, the fines and the whippings continue.

“Who will want to marry me now?” asked Fatima, her young eyes filling with tears. “Maybe an old man, more than 50. I am destroyed. I have lost my chance in life.”

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