Press Release

Sexual Violence in Sudan Camps Often Preventable, Insists UNFPA

4 August 2004
Author: UNFPA

EL FASHER, Sudan—Every night, women leave the relative safety of the Aboushok internal refugee camp to collect firewood. During the day they sell the wood to buy food for their families.

“We go in a group of eight to ten so that some of us can collect the wood and others can keep watch,” says one. “If someone is coming, we shout for everyone to run and try to make it back to the camp. Sometimes we come back safely, but sometimes a woman will get caught and is taken away for a few days.”

The unlucky ones are abducted by marauding militias known as Janjaweed, who beat and rape them repeatedly before setting them free. When asked why the men from the camp do not get the wood, or at least accompany them, one woman replies: “If we let the men go, they will be killed. It is better for us to be raped than for our husbands to be killed.”

A recent assessment by UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, yielded similar stories from dozens of women in the Darfur region in western Sudan. The women, men and children of Aboushok are among the more than 1 million Sudanese displaced since fighting began in Darfur in March 2003, in what senior United Nations officials have called “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis”.

The assessment confirms that women in Darfur are being targeted with sexual violence during armed attacks on their villages, during flight, and in and around refugee settlements. It also suggests that, despite growing international attention to the phenomenon, sexual violence in Darfur is under-reported and under-treated.

Cultural taboos prevent many victims of sexual violence from talking about it outside their own families, even to doctors or nurses. The UNFPA assessment also indicates that some women may be afraid to seek medical treatment due to mandatory reporting requirements. To be treated, a victim must fill out a form giving her own name and the name of her attacker. Some women interviewed said that the lack of confidentiality prevents them from reporting the crime and, therefore, from receiving appropriate treatment.

In addition to physical injuries, unwanted pregnancies and infection, victims who fail to receive appropriate treatment and counselling can suffer from post-traumatic stress and debilitating depression for years. According to Pamela Delargy, Chief of the UNFPA Humanitarian Response Unit, support for the victims must extend to their families as well.

“Widespread sexual violence can traumatize entire families and communities, perpetuating a cycle of anxiety and fear that impedes recovery and reconstruction long after the conflict has subsided,” says Ms. Delargy, who was part of an inter-agency assessment mission to Darfur in April.

UNFPA and partners are helping communities organize women’s groups to support victims of sexual violence and help their families and communities cope with broader social aspects, from stigmatization of victims to trauma suffered by their families. The women’s groups can also serve as an entry point for treating victims who are initially reluctant to visit hospitals or clinics.

In addition, the Fund is training doctors, nurses and counsellors in Darfur to better recognize and treat the effects of sexual violence, while providing clinics, hospitals and partners with drugs and medical supplies to treat it. UNFPA is also working to raise awareness of the need for women to seek treatment, and advocating for more victim-friendly protocols, including confidentiality, so that more women can safely seek the treatment they need.

Finally, the Fund is collaborating with partners working in settlements of internally displaced people to ensure that camps are designed and managed in ways that will minimize the incidence of rape.

"There are very simple, concrete things we can do to help protect people in displacement camps," insists Ms. Delargy. "Maybe we can't change the fact that it falls to the women to collect fuel and fodder for animals, for example, but we can work to see that these provisions are available inside the settlements, so neither women nor men need to travel in insecure environments to get them.”

With the start of the rainy season, simply providing seeds for growing vegetables and grasses within the camps could also diminish the need for women to venture out to collect fodder or firewood. “Sometimes prevention efforts can be as simple as that," she added.

UNFPA's humanitarian response in Darfur also includes support to pregnant and lactating women, training of midwives, and childbirth assistance, including emergency obstetric care. The Fund is asking donors for $3.14 million to expand these efforts to meet the needs of hundreds of thousands of displaced Sudanese in the coming months. 

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UNFPA is the world’s largest multilateral source of population assistance. Since it became operational in 1969, it has provided help to developing countries, at their request, to meet reproductive health needs and support development efforts.

Contact Information:

David del Vecchio
Email: delvecchio@unfpa.org

Filippo Iarrera
UNFPA Khartoum
Tel.: + 00249 (0) 912478375
Email: filippo.iarrera@undp.org

the Sudan
Population : 42.5 mil
Fertility rate
4.3
Maternal Mortality Ratio
311
Contraceptives prevalence rate
17
Population aged 10-24
33%