Top UN officials sound alarm at spike in gender-based violence in Sudan

Displaced women and children who fled the violence in Tawila and sought refuge in El Fasher, capital of North Darfur, June 24 (Photo: RD)


Senior United Nations officials have voiced shock and condemnation at increasing reports of gender-based violence in Sudan – including conflict-related sexual violence against displaced and refugee women and girls – since fighting erupted in the country in mid-April.

In a press release on Wednesday, the heads of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the UN Human Rights Office, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), UN Women and the World Health Organization (WHO) called for “an immediate end to gender-based violence, including sexual violence as a tactic of war to terrorize people”.

The UN officials called for “prompt, thorough, impartial and independent investigations into all alleged gross violations and abuses of human rights and serious violations of international humanitarian law; and for perpetrators to be held accountable”.

“All parties must respect their obligations under international humanitarian law and human rights law to protect civilians, including women and girls, including allowing safe passage for survivors to access health care and for health workers to reach health facilities,” they said, and stressed the need “to swiftly scale up gender-based violence prevention and response services” in Sudan and neighbouring countries.

“Even before fighting broke out on 15 April, more than three million women and girls in Sudan were at risk of gender-based violence, including intimate-partner violence, according to UN estimates. This number has since climbed to an estimated 4.2 million people,” the press release reads.

‘What we are witnessing in Sudan is not just a humanitarian crisis; it is a crisis of humanity.’ – Martin Griffiths, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator (OCHA)

“Since this conflict began, the UN Human Rights Office in Sudan has received credible reports of 21 incidents of conflict-related sexual violence against at least 57 women and girls. The victims include at least 10 girls. In one case, as many as 20 women were reportedly raped in the same attack.

“The Unit for Combatting Violence against Women under Sudan’s Ministry of Social Development also continues to receive reports of conflict-related sexual violence. It has documented at least 42 alleged cases in the capital, Khartoum, and 46 in the Darfur region.

“Given the significant underreporting of gender-based violence, the real number of cases is undoubtedly far higher. Many survivors find it challenging to report sexual violence due to shame, stigma and fear of reprisal. Reporting violations and getting support is also made difficult, if not impossible, by the lack of electricity and connectivity, as well as lack of humanitarian access due to the volatile security situation.

“Attacks on and occupation of health facilities also prevent survivors from seeking and accessing emergency health care,” the UN officials said.

“Yet health-care providers, social workers, counsellors, and community-based protection networks inside Sudan have all warned of a marked increase in reports of gender-based violence as hostilities continue across the country. Women, including refugees living in Sudan prior to the conflict have reported incidents of gender-based violence when fleeing Khartoum to other areas. Women fleeing across Sudan’s borders have told UNHCR and UN Human Rights teams in neighbouring countries of the horrific violence they faced.

‘Our teams in the region describe horrific ordeals being faced by forcibly displaced women and girls when fleeing Sudan. Help to support survivors and those at risk is urgent, but so far, funding is falling extremely short.’ – Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)

“The risk of sexual violence is especially high when women and girls are on the move seeking safer locations. There is an urgent need to ramp up assistance at reception sites for internally displaced people in Sudan’s conflict-affected areas, as well as in neighbouring countries.

“Despite the violence, UN agencies are working to reach survivors. UNFPA is providing gender-based violence case management and sexual and reproductive critical care, including clinical management of rape. The organization also supports safe spaces for women and girls, distributing dignity kits, training service providers and expanding remote services where physical access has been disrupted.

“WHO is working with UNFPA and other health partners to ensure faster access to emergency health supplies. As part of its broader protection interventions, UNHCR is providing services to survivors, including medical and psychosocial support, while UNICEF is working on procurement of post-rape kits, risk mitigation, participation of women and girls as well as prevention and response interventions.”

‘Sexual violence is one of the most challenging international crimes to document and pursue in court. Pervasive stigma inhibits survivors from coming forward or seeking the support they need. This in turn limits survivors’ access to crucial medical and legal services, resulting in unresolved urgent needs as well as underreported and undocumented cases.’ – Sima Bahous, Executive Director of UN Women

As for survivors of sexual violence, timely access to health services is life-saving, the officials state. “In Sudan, women activists have underscored the need for more medications, medical supplies, dignity kits and Post-Exposure Prophylaxis kits to prevent HIV transmission for the clinical management of rape. These items must also reach local clinics, community-based organizations and key front-line responders when survivors cannot access health facilities.

“Helping women and girls at scale requires generous support from donors. The revised Humanitarian Response Plan for Sudan calls for US$63 million to fund prevention and response services for survivors of gender-based violence in Sudan, aiming to reach 1.3 million people. Funding requirements for protection programmes, including gender-based violence prevention and response for those who fled Sudan to neighbouring countries, stand at nearly $63 million in the complementary Regional Refugee Response Plan,” the statement concludes.

On Thursday, the UN Secretary-General issued his annual report on Conflict-Related Sexual Violence (CRSV). The International Crisis Group published recommendations as to what the Security Council and member states can do to strengthen the response to this issue.