December 16th, 2009 by Niemat Ahmadi
In concert with the commemoration of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, the 16 Days mark important events in our lifetime in which the bases for equality, liberty, justice, security for all and the respect for human dignity have been established.
These 16 days are very unique for all of us as human beings and as women in particular. They are a reminder to those who care about human and women’s rights to check our calendars and see how far we have come since both of these declarations. Have we done enough to honor them, or is there a lot more homework to be done?
Sadly, in recent history and in the current crisis in Darfur, war is too often waged on and with women’s bodies. In Darfur, where slaughter continues and insecurity has reigned supreme for over six years, women are the most common targets. Women and children make up the overwhelming majority of the camp population, estimated at eighty percent. Every week, innocent people in Darfur – especially children, women and the elderly – lose their lives or are forcibly displaced from their villages. Countless women and girls continue to face brutal rape, humiliation, beating, starvation and disease. As recently as October 2009, the UN Panel of Experts report showed that “sexual and gender-based violence is rampant.”
In Darfur, rape is being used as weapon of war. It is a systematic tactic to destroy the very fabric of our community. Sexual violence in Darfur is not the product of chaos or undisciplined troops. It is not an after-effect of war. It is a well-planned and orchestrated calculation to break apart families, tear down leadership structures and leave individuals and communities with long-term social, emotional, and physical scars. Women are raped when their villages are attacked, when they flee their homes seeking safe refuge and while they are living in camps for the internally displaced. Abduction and sexual slavery are also tactics used by the Sudanese government and its allied janjaweed militia.
This terrorizing of women, families and communities is not a nightmare – it is the reality of daily life in Darfur. Even when the firing of guns stops, rape does not. As the UN Panel of Experts report tells us, “an overwhelming concern expressed by internally displaced persons was the unchecked aggression by armed elements from Arab tribes, janjaweed, Government of the Sudan forces and other belligerent tribes, and the high rate of harassment and of sexual and gender-based violence. These fears are exacerbated by the apparent impunity these forces seem to enjoy, the ever-present memories of most internally displaced persons of grave human rights violations committed against them and the fact that many individuals commonly referred to as the janjaweed have not been disarmed and continue to brandish their weapons.”
Despite the alarming rate at which rape and sexual violence are used in the genocide in Darfur, little has been done to address this deadly phenomenon. Until today, there has been no study carried out to determine the number of women and girls in Darfur impacted by sexual violence, which is indeed beyond our imagination. Trauma counseling and psychosocial support are unavailable to most women survivors of violence in Darfur. Also lacking are projects that could be designed to provide fuel alternatives for Darfuri women. With these lacking, women leave camps to go in search of firewood for fuel and income and risk facing this cruel act of violence.
The expulsion of many NGOs from Darfur in March 2009 put women at risk more than ever before. Some of these NGOs were doing very important to address women’s emergency health and protection needs. While the programs were insufficient to address the scale of sexual violence in Darfur, they provided crucial services to many women and girls.
For years, the Government of Sudan has kept my people hostage and has obstructed any effort to put an end to the tragic situation in Darfur. The government not only orchestrates crimes, but also denies the existence of sexual violence in Darfur even as its army and allied militias perpetrate rape day and night.
I feel the agony of my beloved ones and know the value of being a voice for those who are voiceless. This is why my organization chose to recognize those who make use of their voices, who stand up to say no to the dehumanization of women. Among the 16 Leaders we honor, some have been through similar experiences, like my sister and countrywoman Zeinab Eyega. While she fled Sudan after the brutal civil war in the South, the suffering hasn’t weakened her – instead it has given her more courage and confidence to stand up for the women of the continent of Africa, not only those from Sudan.
Zainab Salbi grew up in Iraq during its rule by one of the most notorious dictators of our time, where women could barely dream of having voices. But she saw beyond the borders of her home country. Today, as the co-founder and CEO of Women for Women International, she is standing in solidarity with women in conflict zones around the world, including my country Sudan.
Dr. Mohammed is a man of great principle who sacrificed his own safety to give hope to many others, including victims of torture and rape. Using his profession and compassion to heal and remedy their wounds, he brings women the possibility of going back to normal and rebuilding their communities. His contributions are indeed unique and deserve our recognition.
The former Ambassador Swanee Hunt has extended her help to the women of Bosnia and many more on continents far from her own homeland. Is this not amazing? Imagine finding someone advocating on your behalf from across the world, while you were abandoned by your own people.
By mentioning these leaders, I am hoping to highlight the unique experiences of our honorees and how they have struggled and sacrificed to do their great work. They set an example of the power of conscience in supporting, empowering and giving hope. For all their contributions to the betterment of others, these 16 leaders deserve our gratitude and recognition.
If we can find 16 voices within each continent, country, state or community to educate and raise the attention of their closest 16 friends and family members, we will make the world a better place for all of us to live in peace.
If every individual making up our united front just speaks loudly and says no to the abuse of women and girls everywhere, we will make the promise of “never again” become reality. While there are many famous people working for change, you don’t need to be recognized across the world to be a leader. I believe the voice of conscience can be even stronger and more meaningful coming from ordinary citizens who care.
I believe women are the center of the world community. If we can all come together to protect, educate and empower women, our planet will be safe enough to sustain us all.
Niemat Ahmadi is the Darfuri Liaison Officer for the Save Darfur Coalition