Armed militias in Sudan’s strife-torn Darfur region are continuing to rape women and girls with impunity, an expert from the United Nations children’s agency said today on her return from a mission to the region.
Pamela Shifman, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) adviser on violence and sexual exploitation, said she heard dozens of harrowing accounts of sexual assaults – including numerous reports of gang-rapes – when she visited internally displaced persons (IDPs) at one camp and another settlement in North Darfur last week.
“Rape is used as a weapon to terrorize individual women and girls, and also to terrorize their families and to terrorize entire communities,” she said in an interview with the UN News Service. “No woman or girl is safe.”
Stressing that greater political will from the Sudanese Government, the African Union (AU) and the UN system is necessary to stop the practice, Ms. Shifman said the sexual violence will not end until there is recognition that it is deliberate and not some accidental by-product of war.
Ms. Shifman said every woman or girl she spoke to had either endured sexual assault herself, or knew of someone who had been attacked, particularly when they left the relative safety of their IDP camp or settlement to find firewood.
“They know this is a treacherous trip and they fear the trip. But they have absolutely no choice; they must go out,” she said, explaining many families fear that if the men were to seek firewood instead, the militias would kill them.
At least 1.45 million people are internally displaced within Darfur since militias, known colloquially as the Janjaweed, began attacking villages in response to an armed uprising by two local rebel groups against Sudanese Government forces last year. Another 200,000 people have fled to neighbouring Chad.
Ms. Shifman said the women and girls always identified their attackers as Janjaweed or soldiers, and victims fall into every age category.
In one example, a 16-year-old girl who was raped, along with her aunt, when they recently searched for firewood, told Ms. Shifman she is now too afraid to leave her hut under any circumstances, and relies on other people to bring her essential supplies.
Yet none of the women and girls Ms. Shifman knew of a single case where an attacker had been punished or brought to justice for his crimes.
“The perpetrators must be held accountable,” she stressed. “There are Sudanese laws against rape and there are Sudanese courts, and they have to be used.”
Ms. Shifman also called for the political will to be translated into better security for the IDPs so that they feel it is safe to leave the camps and return home without being attacked or raped again by the Janjaweed.
The UNICEF adviser also warned that experience shows that whenever there is sexual violence during war, sexual health problems follow. UNICEF is concerned that some of the women and girls who have been raped may endure unwanted pregnancies, or contract sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV/AIDS.
Ms. Shifman added that the needs of the women and children are not only physical. One 6-year-old girl, for example, told her: “I want my village to be good and I want the hate to disappear.”