Sudan: Concern over rising cases of gender-based violence

Sulaima Ishaq, Head of the Unit for Combating Violence against Women and Children in Sudan, raised concerns over the rising cases of gender-based violence in the country.

Sulaima Ishaq, Head of the Unit for Combating Violence against Women and Children in Sudan, raised concerns over the rising cases of gender-based violence in the war-torn country.

In an interview with Radio Tamazuj, Sulaima delved into the crucial role of the Social Welfare Ministry’s unit in addressing gender-based violence amidst challenging circumstances in Sudan.

From coordinating efforts with government bodies and international organisations to tackling issues like sexual violence, child marriages, and the complexities of conflict-related violations, she shed light on the unit’s endeavours and the hurdles they face.

 Here are edited excerpts:

Question: What activities is the unit currently engaged in?

Answer: Since its establishment, the unit has been serving as a coordination hub between the government, international organisations, and civil society to address gender-based violence. While we don’t directly provide services, we set standards for service delivery, operational procedures, report compilation, and the development of various protocols.

For instance, in 2021, we successfully implemented the “Sudan Voice” program, although we faced challenges in releasing further reports due to circumstances beyond our control. In essence, our role primarily involves coordination and capacity building through training initiatives.

Among our upcoming initiatives, we had planned to enhance mental health services in underserved regions and improve access to justice. Unfortunately, recent events in Wad Madani city disrupted our plans, but we remain committed to executing these projects once adequate funding is secured.

Last year, we organized workshops targeting government officials and service providers in sheltering facilities. These workshops covered topics such as unhealthy sexual behaviour, harassment prevention, and tackling sexual exploitation, particularly prevalent during times of conflict and emergencies. Additionally, we conducted sessions on developing tailored plans for each state, focusing on the specific needs of girls aged 14 to 22, as they represent a significant demographic group.

Q: Is there a shortfall in support from the unit for the increasing number of victims of sexual violence?

A: Yes, there is a shortfall in terms of reporting and the absence of health services, which serve as our primary source of information.

Q: There are reports of child marriages due to economic conditions and the presence of gender-based violence in displacement centers. Why doesn’t the unit address these violations?

A: The situation presents numerous challenges that hinder our efforts. While we can discuss these events, providing accurate statistics is difficult due to unreliable sources. Additionally, there’s a reluctance to share numbers without accompanying services, as it may not be appropriate.

Moreover, there’s a lack of awareness and fear of social stigma associated with reporting sexual violence. Many cases only come to light when pregnancy occurs, exacerbating the problem. The impact of war has been devastating for many Sudanese, yet amidst adversity, we find glimpses of hope when providing support.

It’s important to acknowledge practices like forced marriage and pregnancy as forms of sexual violence, often used as weapons in conflict. Families may feel compelled to marry off their daughters under threats. While we continue our work in sheltering facilities, educating about sexual violence and exploitation, challenges persist, hindering progress.

Disparities in service provision across states, particularly in healthcare, exacerbate the situation. The collapse of official infrastructure like the judiciary and police further compounds the difficulty in accessing essential services, amplifying the plight of women in need.

Q: Does the unit as a government body have any coordination with the Rapid Support Forces to implement its mandate, especially regarding conflict-related sexual violence?

A: Currently, there is no direct communication between the Rapid Support Forces and us. Our only interaction has been through reports. Ideally, they should be the ones initiating contact with us.

Q: What are the latest statistics on violations?

A: The most recent statistic we have dates back to 159 cases, which is quite outdated. Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to obtain updated figures. These cases are spread across various states, with 42 reported in South Darfur, 21 in West Darfur, two in Al-Jazeera, and the remainder in Khartoum. However, accessing these cases has been challenging, and there’s ongoing discussion about cases in Al-Jazeera that don’t reach us due to service deficiencies and breakdowns in communication, causing significant issues with follow-up.

Q: Are there any numbers and percentages by location that you can provide?

A: The numbers of affected girls and women vary. Through our partners, we’ve been able to offer direct assistance to some individuals, including those in sheltering facilities who received “dignity kits” containing essential items like sanitary pads. Providing precise statistics without referring to our records is difficult.

In some states, there are local units dedicated to this work, but activities have stalled due to funding constraints, particularly after the events in Wad Madani. Much of our work relies on funding from the United Nations Population Fund, our primary partner in combating gender-based violence on a national level.

We collaborate not only with the UN but also with organizations like the SIHA organization, the Kafa Development Organization, and UNICEF in White Nile. Together, we’ve undertaken various initiatives to support women affected by violence and conflict, including providing clothing to displaced women.

Our recent efforts have focused on the psychological rehabilitation of women, recognizing their pivotal role in post-conflict reconstruction. Supporting women in this capacity is essential for restoring communities to stability and peace.

Q: How do you operate under these circumstances?

A: In these circumstances, we disseminate reports to various entities, including the ministry, international missions, UN partners, and the specialized office for sexual violence. As a sovereign entity, we don’t require approval from a minister or any other entity.

Q: What are the main challenges you face in collecting information and statistics on violations against people, especially rapes?

A: Our primary responsibility is addressing this issue at the national level. We collaborate with partners to present it to the United Nations and other organizations.

Q: How many girls and women have you supported since the start of the war?

A: Our role isn’t direct support provision to survivors. Instead, we ensure they receive the necessary support through our efforts.