Women led the overthrow of Sudan’s leader, but they are far from safe

Women have been at the forefront of huge protests in Sudan that have led to the overthrow of President Omar al-Bashir, with some estimating they have made up to 70% of those on the streets. They have borne the brunt of 30 years of autocratic rule, with even the most basic civil rights denied them. Now a new chapter in Sudan’s history begins, it is crucial women are given a central role in shaping the country’s future, one that is free from appalling gender discrimination.

Bashir was arrested in the early hours of Thursday April 11th in a military coup. Initially the Minister Awad Ibn Auf assumed power, appearing on television to announce the army will oversee a two-year transitional period followed by elections. He has also declared a three-month state of emergency.

Demonstrators have remained on the streets to demand the military hand over power to civilians, and have expressed concerns that that the military has ousted an unpopular leader simply to replace him with another from the same regime.

In response Ibn Auf, who was head of military intelligence during the Darfur conflict in the 2000s and is accused of involvement in war atrocities, has stepped down from leading the transitional military council after only one day and has been replaced by Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman Burhan. This is seen as a welcome move by protest leaders as he is perceived as more willing to engage in talks.

Bashir came to power in 1989 after leading a military coup to overthrow Sudan’s elected government. In 2009 and 2010 he was indicted by the International Criminal Court on multiple counts of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes committed during the Darfur conflict, and an international warrant is still outstanding for his arrest.

Public unrest

Protests first ignited in December 2018 in response to spiraling living costs, with the country’s inflation rate hitting 72.9%. As it grew into wider calls for sweeping economic and social reforms, the human rights situation deteriorated, with Sudanese police using tear gas, rubber bullets and live fire to disperse crowds. Dozens have been killed, many more injured, and thousands arrested.

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CNN has reported on people being taken to secret detention centers called “ghost houses“, which Bashir’s regime has denied exist, and where detainees speak of being subjected to physical and psychological torture.

There was also a major clampdown on press freedoms, with arrests made by agents of the National Intelligence and Security Service, Sudan’s federal intelligence service. According to the Sudanese Journalists’ Network, at least 90 journalists have been detained.

Hundreds of women, including numerous high profile women’s rights activists, have been specifically targeted by authorities. Equality Now has been informed by our partners, who are working in Sudan on the frontline of women’s rights, about how law enforcement agencies have been verbally and sexually harassing detained women. Particularly alarming are reports that at least eleven rapes last week. 

Women’s rights in Sudan

Women’s rights have been highly restricted by Sudan’s public order acts, introduced by Bashir’s regime in 1996 as a strict moral code applied arbitrarily to oppress women, constrain their involvement in public life, and criminalize what should be matters of personal choice. 

Public Order police can arrest women and girls for a range of offences such as “indecent or immoral behavior or dress” and “causing an annoyance to public feelings.” Wearing trousers or being with a man who is not a family member can result in imprisonment, a fine, and flogging.  

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The legislation gives little guidance on implementation, so what constitutes a violation and how severely it should be treated is left open to the interpretation and personal biases of individual police officers and court officials.

In 2018, the case of teenager Noura Hussein drew world attention to the dire treatment of women and girls in Sudan, when an Islamic court sentenced her to death by hanging after she was found guilty of murdering her cousin, Hammad Hussein.

Noura’s family had forced her to marry him and when she refused to consummate the union, his two brothers and another cousin held her down while he raped her. When he returned the following day, Noura fatally wounded him with a knife in self-defense as he attempted to rape.

Noura’s case made international news, with activists in Sudan and members of the Sudanese diaspora leading calls for her death sentence to be overturned. The hashtag #JusticeforNoura trended on social media and a Change.org petition calling for her release gained over 1.7 million signatures.   

Equality Now worked with Noura’s lawyers on her legal appeal, arguing that Noura was a victim of rape, forced and child marriage, and criminalizing her was a human rights violation under the Sudanese constitution and international law.

It was a great relief when her death sentence was quashed in May 2018, replaced instead with a five-year prison sentence and a restitution payment of 337,000 Sudanese pounds (US $18,700). However, we, along with many around the world assert that Noura should be granted unconditional freedom and we continue to campaign for her release.

Following Noura’s case, Equality Now received reports of numerous other girls in Sudan who have been forced to become child brides and are sexually violated by their ‘husbands’, in some instances being raped with the assistance of family members. 

Child marriage is permitted under Sudan’s Personal Status Law, which gives a father the explicit right to marry a daughter from the age of ten. Sudanese law also specifies that women and girls – no matter how old they are – are only allowed to marry with the consent of a male guardian.

Under Bashir’s rule, women and girls have been denied even the most basic freedoms. The system needs immediate reform to ensure civil rights to all citizens, regardless of gender. Laws against sexual violence and child marriage must be enforced, and public order laws that harm and discriminate against women and girls should be abolished.

Sudanese authorities must also stop targeting civilians, including women’s rights activists, and unconditionally release all those who have been detailed. In addition, Sudan needs to ensure that impartial and independent investigations are carried out into allegations of murder, sexual assault and other abuses perpetrated by the security forces.


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