The rape of Darfur: a crime that is shaming the world

Children as young as eight are attacked by militiamen
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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.

"Rape is feared all the more in Darfur for two reasons. Most important, a woman who has been raped is ruined; deeply traumatised, in some cases she is thrown out of home by her family and forced to survive on her own," the report, entitled Sexual Violence in Darfur, says. "Raped women, not the perpetrators, are blamed. The woman is shamed for life and so is her entire family. Witnesses to large-scale attacks typically record repeated and systematically conducted incidents of widespread rape and other forms of sexual violence committed by armed groups. The mass rapes in Darfur have been among the most effective means to terrorise tribal populations, break their will and drive them away."

The publication of the report coincides with today's global day of action to highlight violence in Darfur. Thousands of people, mainly women, will march on the Sudanese embassy and Downing Street to highlight the increase in sexual violence. The women, who will include WI members, are expected to let off thousands of rape alarms in a symbolic gesture. It will be one of many events around the world, including in Africa and the Middle East.

Among them will be the rape survivor Halima Bashir, who will speak publicly of her experience and hand over a letter to Lord Triesman, the Minister for Africa, to call for immediate action to help the women of Darfur.

Yesterday Tony Blair called on the government of Sudan and rebel movements in Darfur to implement an immediate ceasefire and agree a resolution to the conflict.

Mr Blair hinted at sanctions against the government in Khartoum if the violence continues, warning: "If rapid progress is not made, we will need to consider alternative approaches with international partners. The government of Sudan must prove it is taking its responsibilities seriously."

The Prime Minister said Darfur would remain "at the top of my agenda".

About 400,000 people have been killed and two million driven from their homes during three years of conflict. The Government in Khartoum has been accused of tacitly supporting Janjaweed militiamen,

Brendan Cox , director of Crisis Action, a co-organiser of today's events, said: "The global message going out today in events right around the world is that the international community is at a turning point: either it can turn its words into actions and deploy a peacekeeping force, or it can turn its back on the people of Darfur."

How it started: 2m displaced in a region the size of France

Militants from non-Arab African tribes in Darfur started a rebellion against the Arab-led Sudan government in 2003, claiming discrimination. The Islamist government in Khartoum used a local Arab militia, known as the Janjaweed, to crush the insurgency. More than 85,000 people have since been killed, with a further 200,000 dying of war-related disease, and over two million displaced. The African Union sent in a 7,000-strong peacekeeping force in 2004, patrolling a region the size of France.