Women of Sudan Speak Out on Sexual Violence

Safia Ishag was kidnapped by security forces in broad daylight on a busy street in Khartoum, Sudan on Feb. 13, 2011. Out to buy art supplies, she was pushed into a car and beaten until the car reached the government's security service headquarters. There, in a dark room, three men took turns raping and beating her. When they finally let her go, Safia could barely walk.

What makes this case unique is not that it happened, but rather that we know the story. Safia released her testimony on YouTube, which has garnered to date over 187,000 views. That requires immense courage in country where speaking out about rape comes at a high price. When Safia insisted on filing a police report, she was harassed and followed by police and security agents. Safia had no choice but to flee Sudan. Journalists who reported on the rape and friends who supported her have been jailed or had to flee as well.

Sadly, Safia's case is not an exception: it is the norm in Sudan.

The Nobel Women's Initiative, in collaboration with the International Campaign to Stop Rape & Gender Violence in Conflict today released a report, Survivors Speak Out: Sexual Violence in Sudan, which tells the stories of sexual violence survivors and the women's grassroots organizations that support them. The stories paint a damning picture of widespread sexual violence throughout the country. In Sudan, women have no access to services, protection or justice. Worse, what the case of Safia Ishag and the stories in the report show is that women in Sudan are being punished for being raped.

Women in Sudan are living in crisis. Rape is used as a weapon to destroy communities and to suppress political opposition. Women experience rape in their homes, at work or while fleeing war and violence. Though widespread, this crisis is invisible. And that's how the government likes to keep it.

Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir, sought by the International Criminal Court for war crimes, including rape as a weapon of war, blatantly denies the existence of rape in Sudan. Rape cases don't usually make it to the courts. Instead, the judicial system is organized to deliberately deny women access to justice.

The first obstacle is a document known as "Form 8," which the government requires women to obtain at the police station in order to receive medical treatment after a sexual assault. Although the form is no longer required by law, doctors refuse to provide medical exams without the form for fear of reprisal. While the form doesn't provide for sufficient evidence for a conviction, as it does not include a comprehensive medical report, it is nevertheless used as a political tool to deny medical treatment to women.

If that isn't bad enough, many of the women and girls who find the courage to come forward and report rape are accused of zina (sex outside of marriage), which is a crime in Sudan. Married women convicted of zina face punishment of death by stoning. The onus is on the women to prove they were raped -- they must either obtain a confession from the perpetrator or produce testimony of four male adult witnesses.

Even if a victim manages to overcome all these hurdles, the law provides complete immunity from criminal investigation and prosecution for 25 percent of the population -- all state officials as well as security, military and law enforcement personnel. Ultimately, perpetrators have nothing to fear. The system clearly signals that rape is permissible.

Compounding the problems for women in Sudan, things took a definite turn for the worse in 2009. That's when the government expelled humanitarian organizations from Sudan in retaliation to the International Criminal Court's arrest warrant against President Al-Bashir. These organizations provided essential services for survivors of sexual violence, including medical and psychosocial support, and also brought sorely-needed global attention to the plight of women in Sudan. It was clear that the government was trying to curb international monitoring of human rights violations in Sudan -- including violence against women.

The situation of women in Sudan is dire. But it's not all lost. Time and again, oppressive governments underestimate the resilience of women and their determination to put an end to state sanctioned violence against women. While the expulsion of humanitarian organizations has left survivors cut off from services, local women's organizations are quietly stepping in to provide whatever legal, medical and psychosocial support they can. They do so with scarce resources and at great personal risk.

If these brave women activists and service providers can bravely step to the plate, surely the international community can do more to support the women of Sudan. Let's make sure that Safia, along with the thousands of other women in Sudan, are no longer invisible.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the Nobel Women's Initiative, spotlighting women working globally for peace, justice and equality as part of the 16 Days of Activism to End Gender Violence campaign. For more information about the Nobel Women's Initiative and 16 Days, click here.