Increased Sexual Assaults Signal Darfur
The situation is so dire that about 300 women convened a meeting in Kalma on Aug. 7 to plead for more help from the outside world -- particularly from African Union troops mandated to protect civilians.
“This is a massive spike in figures. We are used to hearing of 2 to 4 incidents of sexual assault per month in Kalma camp,” said Kurt Tjossem of the International Rescue Committee, which collected the figures.
The numbers from Kalma, in south Darfur, are one measure of Darfur’s downward spiral, which is also being reflected in rising attacks on aid workers and in numbers of people fleeing their homes for displaced camps. The signing of a peace deal on May 5 has done nothing to halt the insecurity. Since the beginning of July, 14,780 newly displaced people have arrived at As Salaam camp in El Fasher, some after having spent two days on foot or riding donkeys to escape violence in north Darfur. They are among 50,000 people who have been displaced across Darfur in recent weeks. Last month alone, nine humanitarian aid workers were killed and 20 vehicles were hijacked in Darfur.
The women of Darfur are particularly vulnerable. They have no choice but to leave their camp confines in search of firewood – expeditions that force them to walk several miles into the bush. If men went instead, they would be killed. “We … have chosen to risk being raped rather than let the men risk being killed,” one woman said at the Aug. 7 meeting, summarizing how hopeless their plight has become. Victims range in age from 13 to 50.
In addition to the sexual assaults, which include rapes, an additional 200 women and girls say they have been attacked in other ways in the last five weeks, including being beaten, punched, and kicked by assailants who lie in wait a few miles outside Kalma.
“These women are demanding and deserve better protection,” said Heidi Lehmann of the International Rescue Committee. This must include regular and increased “firewood patrols” by armed AU troops, whose presence alongside women as they trek through the desert could deter attackers. These patrols once were a regular part of the AU’s mission in Darfur, occurring three times a week at Kalma alone. Since last April, though, the under-resourced AU has provided just one such patrol for Kalma’s women
“Resuming regular African Union firewood patrols is vital to the women’s immediate security needs. However, much more is needed,” Lehmann said.
What little protection exists in Darfur could be diminished further on Sept. 30, when the AU’s mandate ends. This will leave women even more in danger of attack and weaken international organizations’ abilities to deliver services to those in need.
All parties to the Darfur conflict must adhere to a full and comprehensive cease-fire immediately and stop targeting civilians. In addition, the IRC calls on the AU to provide a 24/7 presence and regular patrols, which would allow freedom of movement for civilians. Those countries that have pledged money to the AU must fulfill their promises. The AU itself must demonstrate a firmer commitment to civilian protection. To be credible and effective, it must be seen as independent and not partial to any signatories of the May accord. Both it and the United Nations need to make protection of Darfur’s innocents a priority.
Founded in 1933, the International Rescue Committee is a global leader in relief, rehabilitation, post-conflict development, advocacy and resettlement services for refugees and others uprooted or affected by violent conflict and oppression. The IRC is committed to restoring hope, freedom, dignity and self-reliance.