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Last week I attended a remarkable conference in Khartoum called "The Millennium Development Goals: the position of women in the Sudanese laws." I was struck by the account given by a young woman from the Nuba Mountains about the lives of women in her community.
The Nuba Mountains area lies at the point where north and south Sudan meet. It experienced enormous suffering during the 21-year war between north and south Sudan, which was halted by the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement. The Nuba Mountains was not amongst the areas included in the agreement’s referendum provision, and today there is still no agreement between north and south Sudan about its future.
The young woman who spoke at this conference talked about the use of rape as a weapon during the war. She said that many women in her community were raped but few felt able to talk about it. She explained how women were forced to work for the military and required to carry heavy sacks for the soldiers. Each woman would then be allocated to a group of soldiers who repeatedly raped her. Many women died as a result of these attacks. Many were infected by HIV/AIDS. Many lost their minds. Many simply disappeared. And many came back to their communities with children fathered by the men who raped them.
When asked about why we never hear about the stories of women from the Nuba Mountains during the north-south war, she said that these abuses – which were committed by both sides -- have never been documented. No outsiders ever got access to document the crimes that were committed. Only the victims and the witnesses can speak.
She explained other effects of the war on women’s lives. The war disrupted traditional ways of life, and women became heads of their households when the men left to fight or were killed or displaced. With the war over, many men are returning to their communities. But they now expect women to not only fulfill the earlier roles traditionally held by women, but continue their new duties as well. If women fail to do all of this work they are frequently beaten by their husbands or other male relatives.
She also talked about harmful customs and traditions that have a devastating effect on women’s lives, in particular female genital mutilation, which is practiced in the Nuba Mountains by most tribes; "honor" killings; and the kidnapping and rape of girls as part of some traditions for the arranging of marriages. She described with passion how the lack of access to professional healthcare affects women, especially emergency obstetric care. She also described how she had witnessed situations where women who had suffered complications while giving birth were cut by midwives without anesthetic, using unsterilized knives and string to sew them up.
Women in her community saw the Comprehensive Peace Agreement as a huge step forward towards ending the violence that the Sudanese people had suffered during the north-south war. But she felt that much more work was needed to stop the violence and abuse still affecting the lives of women in remote communities like those in the Nuba Mountains. She called on the Government of Sudan and civil society to help women in the Nuba mountains reduce harmful traditional practices and work with these communities to raise awareness of women’s rights. Hers is only one voice, but she speaks for many whose voices have not been heard.
Editor's Note: Violence against women is also a defining component of the war in Darfur. To learn more, the Save Darfur Coalition is sponsoring an advocacy night to end violence against women in Darfur, including a live online panel discussion with actress Maria Bello at SaveDarfur.org/women.
And if you haven’t already, don’t forget to urge your Congressional representative to support the International Violence Against Women Act.