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Left Behind

Why aid for Darfur's rape survivors has all but disappeared.

NYALA, Darfur -- When Sudanese President Omar Al Bashir was indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in March, he responded by expelling 13 international aid agencies from Darfur and disbanding three other domestic relief groups. Khartoum claims the organizations were sharing information with the ICC, which both the groups and the court deny. With the void left by the ousted organizations, the United Nations has instituted emergency measures to help provide food, water, and other vital aid. But one service remains virtually decimated: support for rape survivors.

Many of the expelled agencies and disbanded groups worked together to provide comprehensive humanitarian services, including support for rape victims. And, in their absence, no one has been either willing or able to rebuild Darfur's delicate patchwork of medical, psycho-social, and legal services for survivors of what, in United Nations-speak, is called "GBV" (gender-based violence). "Since the expulsions, our main concern is for the women," one Darfuri leader in a sprawling camp for internally displaced persons, or IDPs, told me, as we took cover from the harsh desert sun under tattered plastic sheeting.

Rape has been prevalent throughout the crisis in Darfur. Doctors Without Borders (MSF) reported treating nearly 500 rape survivors from October 2004 to early February 2005. In late 2006, the International Rescue Committee recorded more than 200 sexual assaults within a five-week period around just one IDP camp. "Rape here is systematic," one of the staffers responsible for documenting incidents of sexual violence for the joint African Union/United Nations Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) told me. "I get new reports every day."

A decentralized and largely informal network of GBV support services grew painstakingly over five years, and it included some of the world's most well-respected aid organizations. The U.N. relied on the network's agencies to share information so that referral pathways could be developed to meet GBV survivors' needs. As a result, women who braved the social stigma associated with reporting rape in Darfur's Muslim society could receive medical care--from life-saving emergency assistance for injuries sustained during brutal attacks (often involving multiple assailants) to HIV/AIDS prophylactic treatment to psychological support.

The agencies faced steady opposition. Staff reported being harassed by government officials and running into bureaucratic obstacles, like Khartoum's persistent delays in signing the technical agreements that are necessary for aid organizations to operate in Darfur. And President Al Bashir personally undermined their cause by insisting that allegations of mass rape were being fabricated for political purposes. In an interview with Britain's Channel 4 last year, he said, "When it comes to mass rape, there is no document or evidence, just accusations. Anything which claims these things are documented is untrue. … The women inside the camps are under the influence of the rebels, and some are even relatives of the rebels. That's why they make these claims." The Norwegian Refugee Council was kicked out of Darfur in 2006 after publishing a report on the prevalence of rape--Khartoum claimed the findings were false--and the head of MSF-Holland was arrested in 2005 after his agency reported widespread GBV.

In the wake of this year's expulsions, Darfur's already fragile GBV-services network collapsed completely. Now, although there is no concrete evidence that the government intended to categorically remove GBV services, many local staffers say that, more than ever, they feel targeted and powerless. "After the expulsions, the message was clear--work on GBV, and you’ll be kicked out," one aid worker told me.

Following the expulsions, the Obama administration's Special Envoy to Sudan, Scott Gration, secured a deal that would allow three of the international agencies to redeploy affiliates in Darfur; the assets that Khartoum seized from these expelled groups, however, were neither returned nor distributed to their fresh incarnations, and new staff had to be hired. The focus of these groups would be on what the U.N. calls "life-saving sectors," like food, water, and sanitation. By mid-June, Gration claimed that aid operations in Darfur were back to "near a hundred percent capacity." Many Darfur activists were skeptical. But one thing is clear: Even if some relief is again available, GBV services are almost non-existent.

The international agencies in the now-defunct GBV-services network protected the privacy of women who reported rape. This was critical because, under provisions in Sudan's Criminal Code, women who have been raped risk prosecution for adultery if they cannot prove that they didn't consent to intercourse. (Judges can impose an evidentiary requirement that four male witnesses testify that a rape occurred--a nearly impossible legal standard for Darfuri women to reach.) If found guilty, women can be sentenced to public lashings, and even death by stoning.

The network ran health centers in IDP camps that would administer rape kits quietly and free of charge, which allowed women to seek treatment discreetly. But, now, they are forced to leave the camps and go to local hospitals if they want treatment. And, before they provide a woman with care, most local doctors require what is known as a "Form 8"--a police report documenting a rape. Although Khartoum said in 2004 that women no longer had to obtain a Form 8 to seek rape-related medical care, Refugees International, Physicians for Human Rights, and the United Nations have all reported that the message was never absorbed at the local level. So women who want to see a doctor must first go to the police--a step many are unwilling to take.

Moreover, I was told in South Darfur that, even when women are bold enough to report rape to the police, they often aren't granted a Form 8. "What we are finding is that the Sudanese police write 'severe harm' in their incident report instead of 'rape,'" a female leader at one of the IDP camps explained. "The problem is that, even if she goes to the hospital, she doesn't get treatment for rape because the police report doesn't say it." Complicating matters further still, most women don't have independent sources of income. Consequently, even if they are willing to go to the police and then a doctor, they face the often insurmountable obstacle of having to ask their families for money to pay for transportation to a hospital, or finding the funds elsewhere.


UNAMID is attempting to fill in some of the gaps in GBV services with "gender desk officers." These are female police already deployed in Darfur whose primary qualification is their gender. Most have no experience in GBV issues, and, yet, they are shouldering heavier burdens than ever now that GBV services have all but disappeared. The officers are meant to serve as contacts for women who want to report rape. However, when I spoke to one of them, a policewoman from Nigeria, she painted a bleak picture of what she and her colleagues might accomplish. "We are limited in what we can do because we don't have enough translators, and, even if we have them, they are men," she said. "Women don't want to tell you about rape with a man there."

The Sudanese government has said it would send new organizations to patch the holes in humanitarian assistance created by the recent agency expulsions. But, while Khartoum does run state committees that focus on sexual violence, no one I spoke with believes they are effective. (They were created in 2005 after then-U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice offered to give Sudan a better rating in the U.S. Trafficking in Persons Report if there were improvements in addressing GBV in Darfur.) "They develop work plans that are void of objectives or timeframes," one aid worker who used to liaise with the committees explained to me. And Human Rights Watch reported in 2008 that the committees are "hamstrung by a lack of funding and leadership."

An environment in which women feel safe to report rape and receive fair treatment cannot be established overnight. But the current efforts to reinstall support for the thousands of women in Darfur who've suffered, are suffering, and will suffer from GBV are woefully inadequate and inexcusably slow. An initial report issued jointly by the U.N. and Khartoum that assessed the breaches in aid left after the agency expulsions in March didn't even consider the impact felt by women who've been raped. Without such rudimentary steps to renewal being taken, there is little hope that Darfur will soon see the return of vital services for its rape survivors.

Rebecca Hamilton is the author of the forthcoming book The Promise of Engagement. She is an Open Society Fellow and a Visiting Fellow at the National Security Archives.