On the eve of my twenty-first birthday I'd like to have everyone who passes by consider the life of a twenty- one year old women in Darfur.
Since gaining independence in 1956, Sudan's various constitutions have granted equal rights and duties to all Sudanese people, irrespective of gender, but these rights have not been brought to bear. For example, in 2000, the Governor of Khartoum issued a decree barring women from working in public places. Sudanese women activists are skeptical that gender equality will ever become a reality, despite promises in the 2005 CPA to help women advance politically, socially and economically by improving things like access to and quality of maternal and child healthcare.
For the most part, Sudanese women remain confined to the private sphere where they are responsible for domestic chores, which is traditionally unpaid work. In Sudanese society, a woman's primary traditional social role is marriage and bearing children. Having many children is a wife's principal function and her ability to do so is often the only measure of her worth. Because of this, Sudanese fertility rates are among the highest in the world, as are maternal death rates during childbirth where 590 women die for every 100,000 live births. This emphasis on traditional roles also contributes to high primary school drop-out rates leading to rampant illiteracy among the female population.
Another issue for Sudanese women is the practice of female genital cutting (FGC). According to experts, FGC is more commonly practiced in Sudan than anywhere else in the world. Almost 90 percent of the country's female population experiences this custom, often in its most extreme form. A woman who does not undergo the FGC procedure risks being shunned. Communities impose harsh sanctions against an uncircumcised women and their families to ensure compliance, including restricting her association with other circumcised girls, calling her derogatory names, and denying her status and access to positions that adult women in that community may occupy. In communities that practice FGC, an uncircumcised female will never be seen as a woman in the eyes of the community.
In addition to socially excluding laws and rigid cultural practices, the conflict in Darfur has had a particularly negative effect on women. Rape has been used as a tool of war to terrorize the population and manipulate the local gene pool. The actual number of rapes is difficult to discern because many victims do not report it due to fear of further stigmatization and even criminalization. In several cases, women were abducted by rapists for several days and kept as sex slaves. Some rape survivors suffered serious physical injuries, including broken bones or burns. After rape, it's not uncommon for women to be deserted by their families because they are "disgraced." Many women also believe they cannot marry because they are "damaged."
Women have been largely excluded from the peace process despite their large role in the intertribal reconciliation efforts across southern Sudan. Currently, there are only two female ministers in the government and no significant representation of women in strategic ministries, such as foreign affairs, finance and defense, or in the judiciary.
Living amidst a war between the Dinka and Nuer tribes, Mary witnessed carnage and horrors. "They came at night, surrounded the cattle camp and shot everyone-even women and children. If women were still alive, they raped them; they even violated dead female bodies," she recounted. "We have never had a good time since we were born, now we are mothers and life is not easy for women."
Unlike the other members of her group, Mary did not flee to Ethiopia when the war broke out. She stayed in Akut the entire time. Like most girls in the South, Mary grew up in a cattle camp where soldiers would periodically stop to rest before returning to the battlefront. Girls in her community were tasked with carrying the soldiers' luggage and ammunition to their next station. It was a harsh experience, Mary recalled. The girls were permitted to rest only when the soldiers allowed them to do so; otherwise they risked being beaten.
The soldiers would also "ask" the girls to sleep with them. There was no way to refuse, she remembered.
Elizabeth had been recently married when the war broke out. She and her husband had only lived together for a month when he was sent to fight on the front line. Elizabeth was left alone, already pregnant. One day, she heard that her husband was wounded. "I was pregnant at the time, and my baby died," said Elizabeth, a frail woman who was overtaken with grief. "Our health can talk" about the condition of our lives, she said.
Fearful of living a life in war and conflict in Sudan, Ananaya tried to flee to neighboring Ethiopia. It was a dangerous trek. One day, Ananaya found herself in the midst of an ambush by rebel groups. She hid in the bush, but she saw one woman from her group lying dead on the ground. The trauma still haunts her with many other new traumas. On the trek back to her home in Sudan, Ananaya and her young daughter were separated for three days. She thought she had lost her little girl. It was too much to bear, especially after she had delivered stillborn baby only weeks before. She wishes for change. " We want things to improve to enjoy peace."
All around her at the refugee camp the tents were sunken into the mud. There were beds for a lucky few, but most people laid mattresses on the ground at night. Some slept standing up. As Amina explained, "some of us sleep on these beds as others stand and we go back and forth. Some of us just find a dry piece of land regardless of where in the camp, [others] sit on the ground and try to sleep sitting."
"People don't want to see us," said Amina, a teenaged mother of two. "Do you see these barbed wires surrounding us? We feel like we are in a cage. We tried to write people. We tried to tell them about our circumstances. We wrote government officials, UN officials, we wrote NGOs, we wrote whoever we knew hoping that someone… anyone can come, can see what we are going through and can save us from this Hell."