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No News Is Good News? In Darfur, Hardly.

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No News Is Good News? In Darfur, Hardly.

Posted by Laura Heaton on October 15, 2009

No News Is Good News? In Darfur, Hardly.

Sudanese President Omar al Bashir’s expulsion of aid agencies in Darfur in March did even more than endanger the lives of the millions of displaced Darfuris dependent on aid for basic necessities; it sent a message to people working in Darfur that they should keep quiet about what they witness or risk facing a similar fate of being shut down.

Months later, the dominant narrative we hear about the fallout from the expulsions, according to the U.S. special envoy to Sudan, is that the aid delivery has been restored to nearly 100 percent. Darfuris protest that this is not the case, but few concrete reports from the ground have emerged.

But yesterday, author and human rights lawyer Bec Hamilton, who has been to Darfur a couple of times in recent weeks (including on a trip with General Gration), wrote this devastating account of the view from the ground based on conversations with women and aid workers in the camps. As Bec describes, the situation is grim, particularly for women who fall victim to rape. Here’s a key excerpt:

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 will 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 [a police report documenting rape]. “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.

I also want to draw attention to a thoughtful post Bec published expressing gratitude to TNR for publishing an under-reported story that other media outlets view as “’inside baseball’… not of interest to a general audience” and to the sources who trusted her with their insights, despite the risk of speaking out. Bec made this important point:

It is my sincere hope that advocates can leverage this information to carefully, cautiously, and in a way that frames services for women who have been raped as integral to a comprehensive humanitarian response (rather than as an “add-on” human rights issue that is beyond the humanitarian mandate), build much-needed attention to this issue…