Blue for Sudan: the road to democracy

In December 2018, the Sudanese people took to the streets with one goal and one goal only; the removal of a dictator and his regime.

This unique revolution began as a peaceful protest in the city of Atbara. People were demanding the basic everyday necessity of bread – it’s since been named by many “the revolution of bread”.  Economic hardships in Sudan, exacerbated by corruption and political oppression, further propelled the rage of people and led to a nation-wide uprising.

The people of Sudan came together from all walks of life and filled the streets of the country with only the hope of freedom and democracy to drive them.

When we think of gender equality, Sudan surely does not come to mind. Sudanese women have been consistently and brutally discriminated against, belittled, violated and neglected under the long-lived dictatorship of Omar al-Bashir.

It is the women of Sudan, however, who have captured the world’s attention during this revolution, at the frontline of the resistance. The women of Sudan have stood defiant, determined and tenacious in their pursuit of democracy.

This is not new to Sudan. The ancient Nubian Kingdom – in what is now the North of Sudan – is known for its warrior queens. The Kandaka, or strongwomen, are known for their strong pivotal roles in the safeguarding of their kingdoms. It is not strange to see the Kandaka rise again. In fact, it is the harsh oppression that women have been subjected to for years that has reawakened the Kandaka.

Women have consistently made up the majority of the protesters in Sudan. At exactly one p.m. on the day of each planned protest, it was the ‘zagroota’ – the women’s cry – that initiated the protests. The rest followed.

It was because of this defiance that women were targeted throughout the uprising.

Women have been beaten, whipped and shot with brutal force in efforts to suppress and stifle their voices. Throughout the uprising, an all-too familiar weapon has been used by government forces and government-supported militias: sexual violence targeted primarily against the women of the revolution.

This is also not new to Sudan. Darfur has long been witness to the government militia’s use of sexual violence against their people. For years, brutal armed militias violated the women – and in many cases, the men – in their rampant crusades of terror in the region.

The Darfur genocide is only one crime of many that has been committed against the Sudanese people throughout history. Today, all of Sudan is Darfur. Once again, in an effort to repress the loud voices calling for change, women are being used as a tool for coercion into submission and defeat.

Rather than breaking their spirits, these heinous actions have added fuel to their determination. Despite the adversity, women continue to lead and campaign for democracy, freedom and equal rights.

Follow the story of Sudan, the women of Sudan and Sudan’s road to democracy with these hashtags #BlueforSudan #KeepeyesonSudan

Revolution & Massacre in Sudan: What Can We Do?

How much do you know about the massacre in Sudan? About the mass murder, internet blackout, rape and torture inflicted on those standing up for peace, freedom and justice over the past two weeks? How much do you know about the revolution that began last December?

If you’ve been relying on major international media outlets, the answer is quite possibly not much at all.

What happened?

After several months of demonstrations and protests, Sudan (finally) captured the world’s attention in April this year when an image of a young woman dressed in white went viral. It was celebrated as an image of hope. International media shared it widely, drawing global awareness to the courage and progress of the revolution.

Soon after, Omar Hassan al-Bashir was overthrown from his presidency, ending a 30-year reign of oppression, corruption and conflict. The Sudanese people demanded an immediate transition from al-Bashir’s presidency to a civilian-led government. Instead, however, military generals took over, agreeing at first to transition to a civilian-led government within 3 years but revoking the agreement soon after.

And so in the days and weeks that followed, protesters remained outside the military headquarters, gathering each day in an area filled with art, music and political discussion. From social media coverage, it also seemed to be a space filled with joy and fierce hope for the future.

In the early hours of Monday 3 June, Sudanese security forces began a brutal massacre.

Civilians were shot and beaten. Mutilated bodies were urinated on and thrown in the River Nile. Women, men and children were raped. At least 118 people were killed, 300 critically injured and 70 raped that day (although the true figures are probably much higher). Perpetrators were mostly members of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) – paramilitary forces formerly known as the Janjaweed.


As graphic videos of violence started to spread across social media, the government shut down the internet. The country has endured a total information blackout ever since. Violence continues. It has been reported that a 6-year-old girl was raped by ten men. Stories have been shared of Sudanese military officials with women’s underwear draped over their weapons.

International media have not shared news of the Sudan massacre widely. They have not drawn global awareness to the atrocities being inflicted on innocent people.

For the most part, social media and grassroots activists have been far more informative than newspapers or world leaders. Many have called out the silence of the international community in the face of such horrific events.

Coverage and information from major media outlets is increasing, but shamefully slowly and with a disturbing lack of urgency. I look at the BBC News app on my phone every day. Not once since June 3rd has a story about Sudan been the daily featured article.

What’s happening now?



What can we do?

“Shaming still works – Sudan’s government would not kill the internet if it did not,” writes journalist Nesrine Malek. “So shame the world into applying pressure on the regime and restraining the Gulf powers that support it.”

She explains that we can help “by preventing the normalisation project and aiding the Sudanese people in getting their message out during the blackout.”

If it’s within your power to do so, inform yourself about what’s happening and the context and history that has led to this point.

Spread knowledge and awareness to others in whatever way you can. The list below is by no means comprehensive, it’s simply a starting point of resources I’ve found useful in my own attempts to educate myself. If you have any to add, leave a comment and I will update the list.

Follow:

@hadyouatsalaam, @amel.mukhtar, @bsonblast, @yousraelbagir, @NesrineMalek, @reemwrites

#SudanUprising, #SudanRevolts, #SudanCivilDisobedience, #IAmTheSudanRevolution #SudanRevolution #SudanProtests #Internet_Blackout_In_Sudan

Read:

If you want to help Sudan, amplify the voices of those suffering its horrors, The Guardian

Victims of Sexual Violence in Sudan Deserve Justice, The Daily Vox

Rape and Sudan’s Revolution, BBC

Three Pioneering Women Recount the Brutal Turning Point of Sudan’s Revolution, Vogue

Tasgot Bas Archives: an up-to-date documentation of Sudan’s most recent uprising

Sudan’s Third Revolution, History Today

Sudan’s Revolutionaries: Offline but Not Silenced, BBC

No, It’s not Over for the Sudanese Revolution, Al Jazeera

Donate:

Emergency Medical Aid for Sudan

Food & Medicine for Sudan

Sign:

The UN must investigate 3 June human rights violations in Sudan

Recognise the Rapid Support Forces led by General Hemedti as a Terrorist Organization

US – Send a message to your representatives in Congress through Resistbot

Today, on International Day to Eliminate Sexual Violence in Conflict, I add my voice to the global demand for accountability for the sexual crimes committed in Sudan.

I add my voice to the chorus of those outraged that rape continues to be used without consequence as a tool for dehumanisation and a weapon of war. You do not have to be Sudanese to support the basic human rights of civilians being systematically and mercilessly massacred. I stand in solidarity with the people of Sudan, and in awe of their resilience and courage. Voices are powerful and silence is deadly.

On Her Shoulders: A Call to Stand with Survivors

I have just finished reading reviews of ‘On Her Shoulders’, Alexandria Brombach’s documentary on Nadia Murad, the human rights activist who won the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize.

From the New York Times to RobertEbert.Com, the almost exclusively male reviewers gave halfhearted write-ups on a movie so powerful that I felt anxiety in my chest while watching. The reviewers, shying away from challenging the culture around sexual assault, took the movie on its surface, commended Nadia’s bravery and quietly moved on.

But if we quietly move on – as our culture suggests when it comes to the rights and dignity of women and girls – we’re missing an opportunity to question our response to sexual assault. We’re missing an opportunity to better support survivors. And we’re missing an opportunity to resist the subtle misogyny that inspires a “three thumbs up review” of a movie that dares questions how we treat survivors of sexual violence.       

Nadia Murad is a young Yazidi activist who is known as a survivor of sexual violence in conflict.

Growing up, she dreamed of being a make-up artist. She never wanted to leave Iraq. Never wanted to be an activist, never desired the public light.

Then ISIS, targeting the Yazidi minority, came to her village. They killed Nadia’s family, destroyed her community, and abducted, tortured and trafficked her until she narrowly escaped.

But ‘On Her Shoulders’ does not highlight Nadia’s background. Instead, it reveals that Nadia is telling a story that she does not want to tell.

Part of her reluctance is reliving the terror, and the other is dealing with a media that is more concerned with her rape than her advocacy.

She answers questions that distract from ending sexual violence in favor of focusing on the act of sexual violence itself. Her goal is to prevent such atrocities, and yet she is asked about the details of the abuse of her body.

Even in the midst of #MeToo, sexual assault is still seen as a sexual act rather than an act of power and control. The objectification of women is a deeply rooted cultural norm. So when we encounter a survivor of such extreme violence that no one dares justify it, the media defaults to the pornographic interest around the act.  

Nadia knows this. Yet she answers these deeply personal and objectifying questions because she recognizes that any attention, however misdirected, provides the opportunity for advocacy. She survived the assault of ISIS, and now she is surviving repeated retelling in pursuit of justice and prevention.

How can we, as individuals living in a culture that still objectifies female bodies, better support survivors and resist the framing of sexual assault as desirable, justifiable or entertaining?       

We need to change how we receive the stories of survivors.

We need to believe them, and we need to focus on what they want us to know, not on what our voyeuristic society wants to know. We need to shift from the male gaze to the human gaze, where we see survivors as individuals with dignity and not as a victims whose assault exists to incite our imaginations.  

Nadia, as such a public figure, is giving us the opportunity to do this. We can stand with her by reading her book, watching ‘On Her Shoulders’ and supporting Nadia’s Initiative, which advocates for victims of sexual violence and works to rebuild communities in crisis.

We can support all survivors by speaking out against any framing of assault as desirable. I will walk out of movie theaters when rape is sexualized, and I will not cast a vote for anyone – man or woman – who perpetuates this culture of victim blaming. We can question and disagree and create change within our own families and communities. And, of course, we do not need to swallow “three thumbs up” reviews of topics about the dignity of our bodies.

I’m fighting – and writing – back.  

Nadia is battle-weary, but still she soldiers on. ‘On Her Shoulders’ reveals the burden of her fight and challenges us to support her, and all survivors who have become reluctant heroines for our sake. She may not be the last girl to survive sexual assault, but if we raise our voices together she could very well be the last girl to speak out alone.   

Denis Mukwege & Sexual Violence in Conflict

I recently had the honor of attending a speech by a truly inspirational person, 2018 Nobel Peace Prize recipient Dr. Denis Mukwege. 

Dr. Mukwege has devoted his life to the rights and health of women in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). For more than two decades conflict has been tearing the country apart, and over those years rape and sexual violence have been used extensively as weapons of war. Sexual violence has been used throughout history and continues to be used to this day as a weapon of destruction (anyone can be a victim, although it is most often women and girls).

Dr. Mukwege recognized not only the health-related consequences, but also the psychological and social devastation, that sexual violence in conflict was causing in the DRC. As his country continued to go through turmoil, his medical practice in the city of Bukavu turned into a refuge center.

Thousands of sexual violence victims targeted by armed militias came to him. Women and girls of all ages sought his help.

During his talk, he showed the audience an image of a very young child who was brought to his practice after being brutally raped and disfigured. It is an image I will not forget for a long time. What I realized at that moment is that our emotions of disgust and anger around sexual violence in conflict are minuscule in comparison with what women and children have gone through and the pain they have experienced.

In 2012, Dr. Mukwege gave a speech in front of the UN assembly in which he denounced the violence against women and girls in his country. Shortly after, his home was attacked by armed men who held his family at gunpoint and killed one of his closest friends inside his home, and in front of his friend’s own children.

I can still hear the doctor’s voice, coloured by sadness and grief, as he told this story. His emotion was so raw, as though the tragic incident had just happened.

After the attack, Dr. Mukwege and his family were forced to flee the country, leaving the women of the DRC behind. Their vulnerability did not prevent them from taking action.

Dr. Mukwege relayed the women’s courage, strength and persistence in finding creative ways of getting their doctor back.

They first wrote to authorities but received no response. People urged them to give up hope that he would ever return. Dr. Mukwege shared the women’s words:

“We took a decision, we [are] going each Friday to sell fruit and vegetables and bring the money here at the hospital until we get the total amount to buy the ticket for him to come back…”

“If no one wants to give him security, we are thousand[s] of women…each night, 24 hours, we will get 25 women around the house and we will be around him so if someone want[s] really to kill him [he will] have to kill 25 women before killing him.”

Dr. Mukwege was so moved by their efforts and bravery that he returned to Congo in the midst of all the chaos and the threats to his life. The admiration he had for these women overshadowed all his doubts: “This was very strong…when I was treating them, I could say that they were weak but there, I was weak, and women were strong, and they brought me back in Congo,” he told us. 

I had tears in my eyes as I listened. I don’t think there was a single individual in the room that day who was not moved by Dr. Mukwege’s story.

He portrayed the strength of the women of the DRC through his words. I believe that women worldwide are the epitome of strength and resilience and Dr. Mukwege’s story clearly portrays that resilience.

It is from these very convictions that we at the Swedish Organization for Global Health – along with so many others across the world – work towards achieving our goals and aspirations for women’s health, safety and empowerment worldwide.

At times when we feel utterly defeated and consumed with our own worries, when our own uncertainties take over our thoughts and conquer our emotions, it is people like Dr. Mukwege and the brave women of Congo who put life back into perspective. We are a force when we come together! We can, without a doubt, overcome all obstacles and injustices. 

Listen to Dr. Mukwege’s amazing speech and read more about his efforts and work here. Read more about The Mukwege Foundation and the wonderful work they do.

“Speaking the Unspeakable”: Sexual Violence in Conflict

Their suffering and desperation was so great that they begged them to kill them, to end their pain once and for all… but the men who had been raping them replied, “No, we’re going to leave you alive so you can die of sadness.”

This is the harrowing story told in the documentary “The Uncondemned” of the first time genocide, rape and sexual violence were prosecuted in an international tribunal. But this isn’t just a story of sadness and grief; it’s also a story of hope and healing. It is a story about the three brave survivors and witnesses who testified at the tribunal, identified then only as JJ, NN and OO.

Co-director Michele Mitchell said: “In the face of enormous tragedy and pain, the fact that three of them were laughing about the plane journey shows their great resilience and demonstrates how they had kept their humanity.” I was privileged to watch this amazing documentary when it was screening in New York City. I left the theater with a heavy heart, but also feeling extremely encouraged and motivated not only by the strength and resilience of the survivors, but also by the young lawyers and activists who made this historical trial a reality, bringing justice and at least some healing for these victims.

Processed with VSCO with a6 presetPhoto: Gabrielle Rocha Rios. You can watch the trailer for “The Uncondemned” here, and find upcoming screenings of “The Uncondemned” for 2017 in selected US cities here.

While researching for a graduate school project on sexual violence in conflict, I came across a paper that talks about rape as “speaking the unspeakable.” Indeed, talking about rape is speaking the unspeakable, especially the rape and sexual violence that happens during times of conflict and war. For a long time, it was believed that rape and other forms of sexual violence were an inevitable consequence of times of conflict and war, and not considered a serious crime of itself. However, today most scholars and activists agree that rape and sexual violence can be used as a weapon of war, and are considered a serious, prosecutable, and avoidable issue.

theuncondemned01_0One of the brave witnesses and survivors who told her story in the film. Photo: IndieWire

The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) was established by the UN Security Council with the goal to “prosecute persons responsible for genocide and other serious violations of international humanitarian law committed in the territory of Rwanda and neighbouring States, between 1 January 1994 and 31 December 1994”. After the ICTR, the ICTY (International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia) and most recently the ICC (International Criminal Court), have joined in having successfully prosecuting rape as a war crime, crime against humanity, and genocide.

On March 22nd, 2016, the ICC issued its first conviction of rape as a war crime. Jean-Pierre Bemba, former vice-president of Congo, was found “guilty on five charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes, including rape, murder and pillage, committed in 2002-2003 in neighbouring Central African Republic,” according to the United Nations. The significance of high-profile personnel being convicted of such crimes – Bemba in Congo and Akayesu (who was a mayor) in Rwanda – is to show that a person is not exempt from prosecution because of his or hers position of authority, and does not need to be the one committing the crime themselves, but if they have authority over those committing these crimes, they can be found equally responsible.

Sexual violence has severe consequences not only for the victims, but also for their families and communities. An article by the ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) explains: “sexual violence can result in severe physical and psychological trauma, HIV infection and, occasionally, in death. In addition, victims often face double victimization: not only sustaining potentially dangerous and long-lasting injuries and trauma, but also facing stigmatization and rejection by their families and communities”.

Most recently, the world has become aware of the reality of sexual violence in conflict thought the reports coming from Syria of women suffering sexual violence not only from ISIS but also anti-government rebels as well as government officials if they had been jailed. Women in the World has reported this ordeal: “Per The Daily Beast, according to Othman and other reports amid the chaos unfolding in the besieged city, sexual violence has been so prevalent it’s forcing women into an unthinkable choice. This morning 20 women committed suicide in order not to be raped,” Othman said. According to NBC News, “suicide is quickly becoming a preference to a violent death or capture by Assad’s troops.”

Talking about rape and sexual violence is indeed “speaking the unspeakable”, but it must be done. To talk about this serious issue is to find solutions, ways of preventing it, and to bring healing and hope for victims. Here’s an example: UN Women has supported a project that helps providing job opportunities for survivors of sexual violence in Bosnia and Herzegovina – “While prosecution of perpetrators and access to justice for survivors is paramount to ending impunity, affordable and appropriate services, such as free legal advice, health care and economic opportunities for survivors, are critical for preventing re-occurrence and rebuilding lives.”.

For more information on sexual violence in conflict, see the Women Under Siege project.

Featured photo: The Uncondemned