Since the Darfur crisis began in 2003, rape has been a horrific and prevalent weapon used to terrorize the population in western Sudan. While the United Nations and NGOs have documented this brutal tactic, a new report — Nowhere to Turn: Failure to Protect, Support and Assure Justice for Darfuri Women — puts a face on this widespread problem by detailing the experience of a group of women in the Farchana refugee camp in eastern Chad.
To avoid singling out victims of sexual violence, who might face retribution for speaking out, the team from Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), in partnership with the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI) framed the research more broadly as a discussion of women’s health. Through physical and psychological assessments, the research team corroborated verbal accounts of sexual violence. Of the 88 women interviewed, 32 cases of rape were confirmed or deemed “highly probable.”
There were no cases in which allegations were either unsupported or inconsistent with the physical and/or psychological evidence observed. These clinical evaluations indicate a very high level of reliability of allegations of rape among the overall sample of women in the PHR/HHI study.
The women interviewed by PHR provided insights on a range of topics that included their feelings of safety in Chad versus in Darfur, social stigmas they’ve encountered, ongoing fear of sexual violence, and mental health issues, among other topics.
The opinion expressed by local authorities and camp managers masked the severity of the problem and contrasted starkly with these personal accounts, affirming the fear many women expressed of being violated again. As one local Chadian official noted, according to PHR:
It is our responsibility to protect these refugees, and I can tell you that there is not rape happening here–it’s all consensual."
Far from seeing improvements in the situation on the ground, as some officials have recently noted, the researchers found that Darfuris living in the camps are approaching a "’tipping point’ of physical misery, depression, and dissatisfaction."
This is due to a variety of reasons, including the lack of physical security outside the camps, insufficient food rations, a yearning to return home and a lack of opportunities for adults to earn money.
As the report’s authors note, while the sampling of interviewees for this study was relatively small, these findings provide a glimpse into the experiences and suffering of a far larger segment of the population. The situation for Darfuri women looks very grim indeed when the levels of sexual violence PHR observed are projected onto the scale of Farchana camp – which is home to 20,000 Darfuri refugees – or onto the scale of the full population displaced by the conflict, – an estimated 250,000 people in Chad and 2.7 million still in Sudan.
To supplement their research, the PHR team has set up an advocacy arm, DarfuriWomen.org, which features additional photos, videos, and personal accounts from women in the Farchana camp. Taken together, these resources provide a stark picture of suffering the conflict in Darfur has caused over the past six years and counting.
Photo: Darfuri women in the Farchana refugee camp in eastern Chad. PHR/Kirsten Johnson