Sudanese Women as War Victims

News and Press Release
Originally published
Khartoum, Sudan (PANA) (Panafrican News Agency, March 6, 2000) - As the war in the southern Sudan drags on, women continue to suffer the most in the conflict between the government and the rebels of the Sudanese Peoples Liberation Army.
By UN statistics, about 1.8 million southerners were forced by the prolonged strife to desert their villages and townships and flock to refuges in the north as displaced citizens.

The majority of these are innocent women and children who cannot even differentiate between a pistol and a machine gun. Once in the north, they are forced to live in cramped camps around the big cities that lack all conditions of a decent living.

This situation forces women to compete for the very limited opportunities available, such as washers and maids. The rest opt for the brewing of local gin (araqi), or prostitution, two lucrative but dangerous businesses if the woman is caught by the police.

If convicted, the woman is moved to an all-female prison. A recent UN research has found that over 80 percent of the inmates of Omdurman women prison in Khartoum were women from the south convicted of trafficking in aragi or prostitution.

The problem is often complicated by the fact that these women's children have nowhere to go to after the mother is jailed. This has obliged prison authorities to let women keep their children with them, thus congesting an already limited space in the prisons.

Appalled by the conditions inside the prison, the judiciary often steps in to drop the sentences and let the convicts out.

Traditionally, the southerners are a proud folk with passion for cattle rearing and agriculture.

Until very recently, they had looked down upon menial jobs. But because the options before them are limited, they are obliged to do such outlawed jobs as brewing illicit liquor or soliciting sex.

Still, the women are very keen about their indigenous traditions. They still adore family life and the bond of marriage despite the difficulties.

Girls who fetched a lot of cattle in dowries before the war still insist to be married the same way as they used to do in the south.

A would-be groom in displacement is obliged to keep this tradition and pay his bride a similar dowry she would have received if she still lived in the war- torn south. But because it is very expensive to buy the cattle in Khartoum, for instance, the dowry is fixed in money equivalent to cattle price in the south.

Price per cattle head now is estimated at 1,500 dinars while it sells at 40,000 dinars in the north.

The life of northern women is also equally upset by the war. With the government having to pay a million US dollars a day to feed the war machine - a considerable share of the export earnings - the living conditions of most Sudanese are badly affected by this.

A recent study by the state-run Central Statistics Organ said 90 percent of Sudanese live under the poverty line.

Accordingly, all family members now have to work in order to make a living.

"In the past my father worked to feed our family of five persons. But now all the five of us work to feed the retired old man," a young mason told PANA.

Another sign of the hard times in Sudan is the endless chain of women selling food or tea by roadside or at their doorsteps. Such a scene did not exist in such a magnitude before the war.

Take any one of these women and ask her why she was indulging in such a business. A ready answer will either be that she has been widowed by the war or her husband's income is not enough to feed the family.

Ironically, this compelling situation has forced men out of a number of activities, leaving a wide room for women. Due to the low pay office jobs fetch, men have shifted to other better paying occupations, leaving room for women to fill in.

As a result the majority of office workers are now females. In a similar manner, more and more young men are losing interest in education because it no longer promises a prosperous future as in the past. Women have moved forward to fill the vacuum thus created.

Recent statistics by the University of Khartoum, the country's most prestigious, show that 61 percent of the 20,000 university students were females.

Women have also moved to assume senior positions in most occupations. They are already cabinet ministers, high court judges, ambassadors, university professors, medical doctors and police and army officers.

Many other women have now established successful private businesses. A business women association recently opened a club where members can recreate and talk business.

By Yahya El-Hassan

Pan African News Agency
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