10 December 2006

The Rape of Darfur: A Crime That is Shaming the World

Children as young as eight are attacked by militiamen

Marie Woolf

10 December 2006

Halima Bashir is a survivor. She was tortured and gang- raped for days as a punishment for speaking out about an attack on primary school children in Darfur.

Her crime was to tell people that a group of Janjaweed militia and government soldiers had attacked the primary school for girls, raping pupils as young as eight. She paid a terrible personal price.

"They were aged between 8 and 13," she said. "They were in shock, bleeding, screaming and crying. It was horrific. Because I told people what happened, the authorities arrested me. They said, 'We will show you what rape is'. They beat me severely. At night, three men raped me.

"The following day the same thing, different men. Torture and rape, every day, torture and rape."

The gang-rape of girls as young as eight has prompted fresh calls for intervention in the western Sudanese region, where tens of thousands of women and girls have been subjected to rape and other extreme sexual violence since the crisis erupted in 2003. The Islamist government in Khartoum has given the Janjaweed militia a free hand in putting down a rebellion by African tribes in the region, and there has not been a single conviction in Darfur for rape against displaced women and girls .

According to a report published today by a charity, the Alliance for Direct Action against Rape in Conflict and Crises, there has been a rise in sexual violence in the region. In the past five weeks alone, more than 200 women in Darfur's largest displacement camp, Kalma, have been sexually assaulted. Unicef and other charities working on the ground have expressed concern about the gang rape of minors by up to 14 men. In one case, schoolgirls and their teachers were targeted by a gang in the Tawila area of Northern Darfur. In an incident in the town of Kailek, Janjaweed militiamen separated women and men. More than 80 rapes were reported - but many more were kept quiet.

Under international law, sexual violence as a tactic in war is considered a crime for which states can be held accountable. A United Nations commission of inquiry found recently that the atrocities in Darfur amounted to war crimes and crimes against humanity. There was hope that the sexual violence would end when a peace agreement was signed in May. But observers say that since then, sexual violence has escalated and the conflict has expanded into Chad and the neighbouring Central African Republic, where rapes and killings have continued.

Charities fear that women and children living in refugee camps are not being protected from Janjaweed militiamen, who have targeted civilians collecting firewood and water to bring back to camp.

The African Union, in an attempt to stop sexual violence, set up "firewood patrols" to provide armed escorts for women. But these patrols recently ended because of problems with finance and questions about the AU's mandate.

Aid agencies say the end of the patrols has contributed to the massive increase in sexual violence. They report that victims not only face trying to recover from their ordeal without proper support, but are often stigmatised. Many women who have been raped in Sudan have been thrown out of their communities, while children conceived in rape have been abandoned. In addition to this, victims face the added fear of contracting HIV.

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