Khartoum—Amira* is the attractive 16-year-old daughter of an Iraqi mother and Sudanese father. She spent the first ten years of her life in Iraq, where her family lived in an apartment in a multi-story house in Baghdad, just around the corner from her grandmother. Amira remembers a happy life, full of “friends, going to school, nice shops, and good weather.” But, when the United States invaded in 2003, her stepfather, believing the family would be safer in Sudan, moved them to Hasahisa, a town two hours from Khartoum.
They settled into a one-room home, and Amira soon met her biological father, Adam. “I was expecting him to be warm and greet me. But he was cold,” Amira recalls. The second time Adam came to visit, he told Amira he was giving her 50 Sudanese pounds (about $20). As he left, however, he handed an envelope to her stepfather instead. Inside was the money—along with a certificate stating that Amira, age 11, was married.
Marriage in northern Sudan is governed by a sharia-based law introduced in 1991 by the Islamist regime of President Omar Al Bashir. It says that marriage is legal from the age of tamyeez. Often mis-translated into English as puberty, tamyeez refers to the ability to differentiate between options, to distinguish between good and bad. According to the law, tamyeez is ten years old.
Although, on its face, the marriage law does not discriminate between sexes, girls are primarily affected. Because the traditional dowry system brings a bride’s family wealth, girls are often married off as soon as soon as husbands are found. A 2006 Sudanese government survey found that 12.4 percent of girls had been married before the age of 15.
In only the fourth grade, Amira suddenly found herself one of these girls, and tragedy quickly unfolded. Her story is a stark reminder that, while the world has long-focused on the violence and strife in Darfur and is now turning its attention to the looming referendum on southern independence, it often forgets the daily horrors that people in other parts of Sudan suffer under Al Bashir’s regime.
After Al Bashir took power in a 1989 military coup, his administration dismantled traditional sources of Sudanese opposition and placed its own members throughout the organs of the state, obliterating the independence of the police and judiciary. It also pushed an Islamization project, issuing ordinances stating that people could have limbs amputated for stealing, that women could be publicly flogged for violating a dress code, and that tamyeez was an appropriate age to marry. Although the regime hoped to enforce Islamization nationally, political circumstances have led to these laws applying only in the north—Al Bashir’s stronghold, and Amira’s home.
For two years, Amira’s marriage existed, for the most part, on paper only. She doesn’t know why her family allowed this—but she says she was thankful. Her stepfather told her he would let her finish school, and her new husband, a 35-year-old man named Ahmed, visited only occasionally, leaving Amira small amounts of money. She used the cash to buy books.
But then, one day when Amira was 13, her father invited her to his house in a town about six hours from Hasahisa. Her mother and stepfather told her it would be impolite to refuse. Soon after Amira reached her father’s house, Ahmed and two male friends arrived. Recalling the events in monotone, Amira says her father and husband took her into a bedroom, where her father told her, “Tonight, we will finish the wedding.” He then locked Amira in the room. One of Ahmed’s friends beat her, while the other bit her wrist—the mark remains clearly visible three years later—to make her let go of her skirt, which she was pulling tightly around her legs. They forced her onto the bed, where Ahmed raped her. “There was blood on the bed” she recalls. “I was not even wearing a bra yet.”
In the following weeks, Amira managed to escape twice. The first time, she went to the local police, but they released her into her father and husband’s custody after the men signed a document promising not to harm her. The second time, Amira found a rickshaw and asked to be taken “anywhere.” After managing to find a phone, she contacted her family, and her mother and stepfather came to take her back to Hasahisa. She underwent a medical exam to document the rape, and her family found a lawyer willing to take her case before a judge. “He gave me hope,” Amira recalls.
But, under Sudanese law, the concept of rape within marriage does not exist. The judge issued a decree that Amira was in nushuuz, or a state of disobedience, and ordered her to go to her husband’s home in Khartoum. Her mother and stepfather, deferring to the law, told her she had to follow the judge’s order. “From the second day, he started whipping me,” Amira says of life after she was forced to live with her husband. Eventually, she managed to escape again and return to her parents’ house. But, this time, she was turned away. “[My mother] told me my stepfather could not afford this, that it will bring them problems,” Amira says.
Instead of making her go back to Ahmed, Amira’s father agreed to let her live with him, his three wives, and seven children. He refused to give her food, however, so Amira made just over three Sudanese pounds (roughly $1) a day selling bags of peanuts. She worked on the streets for 18 months. “[I was] miserable every day,” she says.
On the advice of a regular customer—a former judge—Amira eventually decided to seek a divorce, although the chances were slim she’d be granted one. Women can get a divorce if they prove darar, or harm. (Men, meanwhile, can unilaterally declare divorce whenever they please.) Amira explained to the judge hearing her case that her husband had beaten her, but he told her she would need two male witnesses to prove it. When she couldn’t do so, the judge dismissed her case. Her next option was fidya, a time-consuming and costly process that requires a wife to pay her husband back her dowry. Ahmed had paid a dowry of 30,000 Sudanese pounds (around $12,500), all of which had gone to Amira’s father.
It is here that SEEMA, the only local organization that provides a full range of services to victims of domestic violence in northern Sudan, tried to step in to help Amira. Because Ahmed lived in Khartoum, Amira had to bring fidya before a judge there, and SEEMA paid her bus fare to the capital. But the organization was unable to help after that. Their finances had run dry because their primary funder, CARE International, had been kicked out of Sudan.
After the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for him, President Al Bashir expelled several major international aid organizations from his country in March 2009. According to Rania Rajji, a Sudan researcher for Amnesty International, the expulsions were “the final stage of a strategy that had been undermining the work of NGOs in Sudan” for years. Indeed, local aid organizations say international security services have harassed them for years—but, since 2009, the situation has worsened because groups now have far fewer of the resources they need to provide their services.
What’s more, in the aftermath of the expulsions of groups like CARE, international attention turned mostly to the impact the events had on people in war-torn Darfur. The consequences for people like Amira, victims of “everyday” violence, poverty, and fear in other parts of the country, went largely unreported. With key sources of aid cut off, these people have few places to turn. They certainly cannot look to the state for protection.
The day before I left Khartoum in August, I received a phone call from the head of SEEMA, telling me that Ahmed, without warning or stated reason, had issued Amira a divorce. I met with Amira the next morning, and she told me wouldn’t believe it was true until she saw it in writing. But her face was radiant. “Happiness! Freedom!” she said, when I asked what she was feeling.
The jubilation was short-lived. Her father called and screamed at her, telling her that, because of the divorce, he was now her guardian, and she had to live with him. Defiant, Amira said she would not. He said that if she was too stupid to understand, she should consult their religious leaders—at which point Amira, inexplicably, began to giggle. Her father kept screaming until, finally, Amira hung up the phone. “It is better to die” she said. Then, she started to cry.
Sixteen, divorced, and with only a fifth-grade education, Amira’s prospects in Sudan look grim. She is unable to support herself, but she doesn’t want to return to her father, or her stepfather. And Sudan has no equivalent of a domestic violence shelter. For now, she is staying with a cousin, her husband, and their three children in a one-room home—but she knows that can’t last forever.
SEEMA is still hoping to raise enough money from local supporters to help get Amira back into school, but, even if that happens, the group’s leaders feel Amira needs psychological treatment and a social network that will support her—neither of which the organization can currently provide. And, with Al Bashir unlikely to reverse his stance on international aid that could help people like Amira, it’s hard to imagine that SEEMA’s financial situation will change anytime soon.
Still, Amira hasn’t given up hope entirely. “I am trying to be strong,” she says. Asked what she would do if she could go back to school, her face brightens. “Study medicine and be a doctor and return to Iraq,” she says. “Iraq is very beautiful.”
Rebecca Hamilton is a fellow at the New America Foundation and author of the forthcoming book, Fighting for Darfur. This article was supported by funding from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. *The young woman’s name has been changed to protect her identity.