Armed men on horseback, members of the government-supported Janjaweed militia, have been riding into villages in order to commit genocide in the Darfur province of Western Sudan for over a year. They are often accompanied by soldiers in trucks or aircraft in their mission to burn down homes, kill men and rape women. This March 8, International Women’s Day, people around the world must take action on behalf of the thousands of women suffering from continued violence in Darfur.
The women fortunate enough to escape sexual violence during the destruction of their homes and military attack on their village face a tremendous risk of becoming victims even after fleeing to an internally displaced persons (IDP) camp. In the camps, women and girls have the responsibility of regularly venturing out to gather firewood for cooking, as men are likely to be killed for setting foot outside the camps. As nearby wood becomes depleted and the women wander further from the campground, militias that lurk just outside the camp often seize the opportunity to sexually assault them. The victims of rape in Darfur range from the very young (a 6-year-old has been a reported victim) to the elderly. There is no safety and security for females of any age in IDP camps.
In Sudanese society, many married women who are raped find themselves abandoned by their husbands and ostracized by their communities. Unmarried survivors of rape are considered soiled and unmarriageable. Some Darfurians maintain the belief that women cannot become pregnant through unwanted intercourse, which makes life even harder for many rape victims. The deep stigma of rape prevents many women from seeking appropriate medical attention. Physical injuries resulting from sexual abuse often include damage to the reproductive system, as well as fistula, a tearing of the wall between the vagina and bladder which causes incontinence. Such women, unable to bear children or unable to hold their urine, are likewise often shunned by their communities. Fistula can be repaired by surgery if the woman has access to and freedom to seek out proper medical attention — which is unlikely. The dearth of adequate medical facilities and taboo against seeking medical attention mean that most rape victims will never be checked or treated for infection or the spread of HIV.
These crimes against women are crimes against entire communities, and the perpetrators will continue tearing apart the social fabric of Darfur’s villages through sexual violence as long as the Sudanese government encourages these abuses. Civilian women in villages and displaced persons camps will continue to live in fear of violence as long as the Janjaweed militias expect impunity. As long as women gang-raped by groups of strangers are turned away by government officials because they cannot identify their attackers by name, as long as relatives of victims are arrested by police for filing “false” complaints, and as long as the Khartoum government continues to set up farcical committees charged with investigating allegations of systematic rape — rape committees with no budgets, offices or doctors on staff — the devastation of Darfur’s women will not end.
On Wednesday, Sens. Jon Corzine (D-N.J.) and Sam Brownback (R-Kans.) introduced Senate Bill 495, the Darfur Accountability Act of 2005. The bill calls for the United States to freeze the assets of and impose travel sanctions on all known Janjaweed members, for all non-humanitarian assistance to Sudan to cease until “concrete, sustained” steps are taken to end the genocide, and for accelerated assistance to the African Union Mission in Sudan through presidential discretion. Both the Connecticut senators are cosponsors of the Darfur Accountability Act. This bill is a welcome and long-awaited measure, but it does not go far enough.
The United States must impose a temporary arms embargo on Sudan. In other resolutions, such as the resolution currently before Congress urging Europe to maintain an arms embargo on China, Congress has recognized the reprehensibility of providing the means for the Sudanese armed forces to carry out a full-scale attack on certain ethnic groups in their country. Yet, there is no legislation to stop any American arms manufacturer from providing the planes and guns that allow the Sudanese forces to bomb civilians and back up Janjaweed attacks.
Congress also needs to provide resources to the peacekeeping forces currently in Sudan, not just through presidential discretion over military resources, but through budget allocations and aid. Putting peacekeepers around refugee camps is the only way to prevent the rape and assault of refugees trying to feed their families. The African Union does not have the resources to protect civilians and monitor attacks without aid from the developed world.
It is our responsibility to stop genocide. In honor of International Women’s Day, March 8, take a moment to contact your representatives. Let them know that not only do you support the Darfur Accountability Act, you also support an arms embargo on Sudan and increased aid for peacekeeping. Brave individuals who dare to report these human rights abuses to foreign aid-workers and fact-finders have often risked their liberty, and sometimes their lives. Now that their message has reached us, it’s our turn to reach back out to them.
Natalie Spicyn, a senior in Pierson College, and Cathy Sweetser, a senior in Timothy Dwight College, are members of STAND — Students Taking Action Now: Darfur.