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Women on the Frontlines: A Feminist Perspective on the Ongoing Crisis in Sudan

The ongoing conflict in Sudan has had a devastating impact on women and girls, who are among the most vulnerable in conflict situations. Despite the challenges, Sudanese women remain committed to making their voices heard in peacebuilding efforts.

Image credit: WILPF
Reem Abbas
26 April 2023

How did this conflict start?

On the 15th of April 2023, Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, was rocked by sounds of heavy artillery in the southern part of the city, as soldiers from Sudan’s national army and soldiers from the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a paramilitary group, began a series of armed confrontations. Fighting spread across Khartoum state and quickly spread to other states in Sudan.

The RSF was created by Sudan’s ousted president, Omer Al-Bashir, in 2012-2013 as a rapid response force able to mobilise quickly against rebel groups in Southern and Western Sudan. However, the RSF is a continuation of an age-old tradition by the armed forces to militarise rural and nomadic communities to protect their rule against ongoing rebel movements. Sudanese women, who usually bear the brunt of the country’s political and economic crises, found themselves amidst a power struggle between two generals. The armed forces felt that the RSF had become out of control and took action to monopolise power, while the RSF saw itself as a more suitable replacement for the armed forces.

This article offers a feminist perspective on the current conflict and introduces readers to the struggle of Sudanese women, who for years have argued that the armed forces and the RSF do not serve their interests and have spoken out against militarisation and the large military budget that prioritizes machine guns over the lives of women.

What has been the impact of this crisis on women? 

The crisis in Sudan has had a devastating impact on the population, particularly women and girls, who are among the most vulnerable in conflict situations. Khartoum’s state has been the epicentre of the conflict, leaving large districts completely devastated. The city of the two Niles, where the Blue Nile and the White Nile meet, has been particularly hard hit and is now barely recognisable – with the streets now smelling of death and bodies lying there for days.

Despite the ongoing shelling, many people are on the move, with mothers carrying their children and a few basic items, while others have fled to safer parts of the capital or to relatives in other cities. However, the violence has not spared women and girls, who are at an increased risk of gender-based violence due to social and economic circumstances.

Even staying in their own homes does not guarantee women’s safety, as some families have been forced out of their houses by soldiers, while others have been forced to share their homes with members of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), who have taken over the cooking and cleaning duties, leaving women and girls at risk of abuse.

Amidst this senseless violence, women and girls are struggling on multiple fronts, including access to food, water, and medical care, as well as protection from violence and abuse. The situation is dire, and urgent action is needed to ensure the safety and well-being of women and girls in Sudan.

Sudanese women are especially vulnerable to gender-based violence due to social and economic circumstances. Women are not safe on the streets and inside their own homes.

Women being subjected to sexual violence on a daily basis 

Women in central and northern Khartoum are facing the horrific reality of sexual violence at the hands of the RSF. Families are trapped in their once safe homes, now at the mercy of men with machine guns, leaving women and girls particularly vulnerable to assault. The situation is made worse by the fact that the majority of hospitals in Khartoum state are either bombed, damaged, or understaffed, leaving survivors of sexual and gender-based violence, as well as pregnant mothers, at great risk. Despite the frequency of these heinous crimes, rape remains heavily under-reported due to the stigma and shame attached to it, leaving the silent cries of victims unheard.

Risking everything to get so little food

The dire economic situation in Sudan has forced hundreds of thousands of men and women to leave their homes in search of employment opportunities, leaving women and children behind to survive on remittances. Women in urban areas are especially vulnerable, as they work as tea and food sellers or petty traders on the streets of Khartoum, providing the sole source of income for their households. Many of these women in the informal industry continue to work during the ongoing conflict, despite the risk to their lives, because they have few other options. Tragically, some women have not returned home, and all are risking their lives every day for the sake of providing for their families.

What roles have Sudanese women played in peacebuilding efforts?

Sudanese women have faced immense challenges as they navigate the consequences of war. They have been betrayed by the very forces that were supposed to provide them with stability and safety, as well as by politicians who threatened war if political agreements did not give them power and positions. Despite these challenges, Sudanese women remain committed to making their voices heard in peacebuilding efforts.

To understand the role of Sudanese women in the struggle against military rule, it is important to look back at the history of the women’s movement in Sudan. Women have been organizing and forming groups to resist colonization and fight for their rights since the late 19th century. The formation of the Sudanese Women’s Union (SWU) in 1952 marked a turning point in the women’s movement, as it aligned itself with the anti-colonial struggle. However, the development of an organic women’s movement was impeded by the political landscape in Sudan.

Political parties monopolised work on women’s issues and excluded women from leadership roles, which prevented the development of a strong and organic women’s movement. Despite these challenges, Sudanese women played a crucial role in the 2019 revolution that overthrew long-time dictator Omar al-Bashir. Women were at the forefront of the protests, and their participation was instrumental in the success of the revolution.

However, patriarchal political parties in Sudan have used conservative social norms to argue against female leadership. Women have been excluded from leadership positions, and their participation in political processes has been limited. This exclusion not only undermines the role of women in building a more stable and just society but also prevents the full realization of their rights as citizens.

It is crucial that women’s voices are heard and valued in peacebuilding efforts, as they have a unique and vital perspective to offer. Women have been affected by conflict in ways that are distinct from men, and their experiences must be taken into account in the design and implementation of peacebuilding efforts. Women can play a crucial role in building sustainable peace by advocating for the inclusion of marginalized groups, promoting human rights, and addressing the root causes of conflict.

In conclusion, Sudanese women have played a crucial role in the struggle against military rule and in the 2019 revolution. However, their participation in political processes has been limited, and patriarchal political parties have used conservative social norms to argue against female leadership. It is important that women’s voices are heard and valued in peacebuilding efforts, as they have a unique and vital perspective to offer in building a more stable and just society. By promoting women’s participation in peacebuilding efforts, we can build sustainable peace and create a better future for all Sudanese citizens.

Only listen to the men in arms

The same approach was evident in peacebuilding as women continued to be sidelined during peace talks even when they had more information and viable solutions about the situation on the ground. One example of this is during the Abuja peace talks for the Darfur conflict in 2005 when the rebel groups argued over a river and the women were the ones to point out that the river, a significant resource for people in the area, had actually dried up.

The exclusion of women was once again visible in the 2020 Juba peace talks for peace in Sudan, which failed to bring peace and was one of the facilitators of the current conflict. In Juba, women represented 10% of negotiators and all the mediators were men because the talks were structured in a way that excludes the presence of anyone not from the top leadership of the armed groups.

Women’s inclusion in peace processes has been shown to lead to more comprehensive and sustainable peace agreements, as well as greater respect for human rights and gender equality. However, the present conflict resolution mechanisms are flawed and are centred around rewarding men for taking up arms. Giving them more political power and economic access and ignoring the voices of women civil leaders who understand the impact of the conflict and have clear solutions.

These women cannot show bullet wounds in their right arm since they didn’t suffer in the woods, but they do understand the impact of the conflict and have clear solutions. It is time to move away from the idea that only the men in arms should be listened to during peace talks and include the perspectives and solutions of women civil leaders who are equally affected by the conflict and can offer valuable insights towards achieving lasting peace.

What does a feminist approach to peacebuilding look like? 

Feminists in Sudan are already mobilizing for peace and an end to the ongoing war. One such initiative is Feminists for Peace, which arrived before all political parties. A feminist approach to peacebuilding in Sudan must prioritize the experiences and perspectives of women, who have been disproportionately affected by the crisis. However, before articulating that approach, it is crucial to address the contradictions within the women’s movement. The movement is divided based on intergenerational conflicts, differing ideologies, and the most dangerous division, between feminists who challenge power dynamics in Sudan and those who serve the interests of patriarchal political parties and receive personal rewards.

Now more than ever is the time for Sudanese women to lead. Women are already leading conversations about war and peace and organizing much-needed medical and social services in this complex environment. Political parties, the military sector, the international community, and women’s rights organizations must continue working with Sudanese women to ensure their full inclusion in a comprehensive peace process that promotes greater respect for human rights and gender equality. Such a peace process must not only stop the war but also help the community to heal and rebuild what was lost.

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Reem Abbas

Reem Abbas, Communications Coordinator for Countering Militarized Masculinities, Mobilising Men for Feminist Peace, based in Sudan.

Melissa Torres

VICE-PRESIDENT

Prior to being elected Vice-President, Melissa Torres was the WILPF US International Board Member from 2015 to 2018. Melissa joined WILPF in 2011 when she was selected as a Delegate to the Commission on the Status of Women as part of the WILPF US’ Practicum in Advocacy Programme at the United Nations, which she later led. She holds a PhD in Social Work and is a professor and Global Health Scholar at Baylor College of Medicine and research lead at BCM Anti-Human Trafficking Program. Of Mexican descent and a native of the US/Mexico border, Melissa is mostly concerned with the protection of displaced Latinxs in the Americas. Her work includes training, research, and service provision with the American Red Cross, the National Human Trafficking Training and Technical Assistance Centre, and refugee resettlement programs in the U.S. Some of her goals as Vice-President are to highlight intersectionality and increase diversity by fostering inclusive spaces for mentorship and leadership. She also contributes to WILPF’s emerging work on the topic of displacement and migration.

Jamila Afghani

VICE-PRESIDENT

Jamila Afghani is the President of WILPF Afghanistan which she started in 2015. She is also an active member and founder of several organisations including the Noor Educational and Capacity Development Organisation (NECDO). Elected in 2018 as South Asia Regional Representative to WILPF’s International Board, WILPF benefits from Jamila’s work experience in education, migration, gender, including gender-based violence and democratic governance in post-conflict and transitional countries.

Sylvie Jacqueline Ndongmo

PRESIDENT

Sylvie Jacqueline NDONGMO is a human rights and peace leader with over 27 years experience including ten within WILPF. She has a multi-disciplinary background with a track record of multiple socio-economic development projects implemented to improve policies, practices and peace-oriented actions. Sylvie is the founder of WILPF Cameroon and was the Section’s president until 2022. She co-coordinated the African Working Group before her election as Africa Representative to WILPF’s International Board in 2018. A teacher by profession and an African Union Trainer in peace support operations, Sylvie has extensive experience advocating for the political and social rights of women in Africa and worldwide.

WILPF Afghanistan

In response to the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban and its targeted attacks on civil society members, WILPF Afghanistan issued several statements calling on the international community to stand in solidarity with Afghan people and ensure that their rights be upheld, including access to aid. The Section also published 100 Untold Stories of War and Peace, a compilation of true stories that highlight the effects of war and militarisation on the region. 

IPB Congress Barcelona

WILPF Germany (+Young WILPF network), WILPF Spain and MENA Regional Representative

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Demilitarisation

WILPF uses feminist analysis to argue that militarisation is a counter-productive and ill-conceived response to establishing security in the world. The more society becomes militarised, the more violence and injustice are likely to grow locally and worldwide.

Sixteen states are believed to have supplied weapons to Afghanistan from 2001 to 2020 with the US supplying 74 % of weapons, followed by Russia. Much of this equipment was left behind by the US military and is being used to inflate Taliban’s arsenal. WILPF is calling for better oversight on arms movement, for compensating affected Afghan people and for an end to all militarised systems.

Militarised masculinity

Mobilising men and boys around feminist peace has been one way of deconstructing and redefining masculinities. WILPF shares a feminist analysis on the links between militarism, masculinities, peace and security. We explore opportunities for strengthening activists’ action to build equal partnerships among women and men for gender equality.

WILPF has been working on challenging the prevailing notion of masculinity based on men’s physical and social superiority to, and dominance of, women in Afghanistan. It recognizes that these notions are not representative of all Afghan men, contrary to the publicly prevailing notion.

Feminist peace​

In WILPF’s view, any process towards establishing peace that has not been partly designed by women remains deficient. Beyond bringing perspectives that encapsulate the views of half of the society and unlike the men only designed processes, women’s true and meaningful participation allows the situation to improve.

In Afghanistan, WILPF has been demanding that women occupy the front seats at the negotiating tables. The experience of the past 20 has shown that women’s presence produces more sustainable solutions when they are empowered and enabled to play a role.

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