The use of rape as a weapon of war in the conflict in Darfur, Sudan

from Harvard University
Published on 31 Oct 2004

Rape as a weapon of war has a long history and only recently has been expressly punished under codified international law. Despite this prohibition, as found in the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 and the Additional Protocols of 1977, recent wars have seen ample deployment of this brutal tactic, committed by state as well as non-state actors. Judicial findings from the two ad hoc United Nations (UN) war crimes tribunals of the 1990s have provided further formal definition of rape and elaborated legal sanctions against its use in war. Against this background of increasingly developed specification in norms and law, it is disquieting for governments and civil society throughout the world to have to witness the extensive application of rape as a weapon of war in the current ongoing conflict in Darfur, Sudan.

The report that follows has relied on extensive interviews and review of the available published and grey literature to arrive at a qualitative assessment of four issues: the nature of the rapes that have recently and are now occurring in Darfur; the circumstances in which they have taken place; their utility in a war context and in the context of ethnic cleansing or genocide; the impact that these rapes are exacting upon the surviving non-Arab community of Darfur; and possibilities for mitigation and support that are now available to the international community, particularly the U.S. government.1

Our findings suggest that the military forces attacking the non-Arab people of Darfur, the Janjaweed in collaboration with forces of the Government of Sudan (GOS), have inflicted a massive campaign of rape as a deliberate aspect of their military assault against the lives, livelihoods, and land of this population. The ongoing insecurity in the region and the methodological complexities of conducting a systematic population-based survey at this time make it impossible to arrive at a quantitative estimate of the actual incidence of these attacks or the number that have so far taken place. All evidence gathered to date and marshaled in this report would indicate that the extent of rape against this population has been very great and that the number of survivors now in need of support and assistance is very high.

Based on extensive discussion with informed observers, local interlocutors, and experts from the region, we have advanced a number of observations and recommendations, which are summarized here.

1) The highest priority now is to introduce a measure of real protection for the populations now displaced in Darfur and Chad in order to reduce the ongoing risk of rape to women and girls as they move outside camps and villages to find firewood and water. In Darfur, the mandate and size of the AU force must be expanded to allow for robust peacekeeping and the protection of civilians, and the international community must provide the financial and logistical support necessary to accomplish this expansion. In Chad, an international police force or professional, local armed forces must be recruited and deployed. Every effort should be made to recruit women to the AU and Chadian forces.

2) The next priority is augmenting the provision of basic humanitarian aid - food, water, shelter - to the displaced populations in Darfur, who are in many areas still not adequately supplied, and to some camps still in need in Chad. The survivors of rape are oppressed now by ongoing survival concerns, which must be eased as soon as possible.

3) The extent of rape, the estimated increase in pregnancy, and the underlying poor health conditions of the women survivors point to an urgent need to supply an augmented obstetric and gynecological capacity as part of the medical relief program. More so than in many other complex emergencies, this population may well need the medical expertise capable of carrying out caesarian sections and gynecologic repairs.

4) Many opportunities exist for providing women in the camps and settlements with short-term activities and employment that will help maintain the family economy and restore a sense of control and competence to rape victims.

5) Appropriate support and counseling services should be made available to the displaced populations, compatible with religious and cultural traditions. As rape survivors begin to feel more safe about coming forward for help, there will be a great need for psychosocial services in all settlement areas in Chad and Darfur.

6) Abandoned and orphaned children will need care and attention on many levels, from family tracing to support for local adoption.

7) Efforts must be maintained and strengthened to trace and reunite separated families.

8) Outreach to rape victims must be approached through women leaders in the community and all efforts made to avoid targeting or identifying women who have survived rape as distinct from the general female population in the community. Outreach to men through community and religious leaders should aim to valorize the women who have been raped as casualties of war.

9) A reporting system must be established in each camp and settlement area for documenting and reporting instances of rape and sexual assault.

10) Any evidence of rape and sexual assault that is gathered should be preserved for future justice efforts, whether they be domestic, regional, or international.

11) The U.S. government should continue to pressure the GOS on the need for the perpetrators of sexual violence and other crimes to be brought to justice.

The recommended measures discussed in more detail below will only partially redress the enormous losses and pain inflicted by hostile forces during this war. In its efforts to bring this conflict to an end and help the non-Arab Darfurians return to their homes, the international community must recognize that the survivors of this conflict, including the thousands of women who have been raped, are affected indelibly by their recent terrible experiences. The return to home is a long way off, given the complexity of the conflict and the political obstacles to its ready resolution. In the interim, implementing the recommendations contained in this report may provide some measure of support and reassurance to the people of Darfur that the outside world does, indeed, care and does, indeed, intend to help them retrieve their future.


1 This report does not examine rapes committed by the Sudanese Liberation Army/Movement (SLA/M) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) forces. The report's focus on rapes committed by the Janjaweed and GOS military against the non-Arab Darfurians does not imply that these are the only rapes to have taken place in the context of the current conflict. Nor does this report intend to imply that all rapes committed in Darfur during this conflict are part of a deliberate military strategy.

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