STEERING COMMITTEE FOR HUMAN RIGHTS IN THE TRANSITION IN SUDAN
ISSUE PAPER D-1
WOMEN’S RIGHTS: THE CHALLENGE OF THE TRANSITION
This is based on a paper written for the Committee by Muna Awad Khogali
The purpose of this paper is to trace and identify the causes of the discrimination practiced against Sudanese women and to identify measures that can and should be taken by a future Transitional Government. First, we must analyse Sudanese society and its means that are used in order for a male-dominated order to impose virtually unlimited authority over women. Secondly, we will look at the effects of the oppressive measures (especially laws) against women taken by successive governments since Independence, especially of course the current National Islamic Government. Finally, the paper is concerned with the means to create a new future for women’s rights in the Sudan, by identifying specific measures that should be implemented to deal with the numerous issues identified. These suggested solutions are relevant not only for the future of Sudanese women, but are also essential if the concept of human rights in Sudan is to be meaningful in the future.
Sudanese Society and Women’s Rights
At the time of independence in 1956, the pattern of Sudanese society was essentially tribal and clannish. Sudanese rural society had a division of labour, that kept women in certain roles, namely the housewife’s role and the role of a menial agricultural labourer. When cities emerged, broadly similar pattern of roles were created for the vast majority of urban women. In general, we can say that the Sudanese society, like other societies in Africa and the Middle East, in its nature, is a patriarchal society that considers women inferior to men. In this society, it is men’s duty to act on behalf of ‘their’ women. Although there are many differences in culture and customs between different Sudanese communities, all have in common the fact that men dominate and control women.
Sudanese women have always experienced the influence of this patriarchal society and its inherited norms of social suppression. This society gives men almost an absolute power in social units, while it puts large restrictions on women. Women are denied many basic liberties such as freedom of expressions, freedom of movement, and the right of taking their own decisions. This power is reflected not only in the law, but in the functioning of basic social institutions including schools, health services, employment and the family.
Such traditional society, needed a moral and legal frame for the the continuing exercise of patriarchal power. Sudanese traditional society used the inherited accumulated social mores, social habits and social traditions for this purpose. Disguised male control over almost all aspects of Sudanese society, under the name of some customary social values, today serves to prevent women’s advancement. ‘Culture’ and ‘tradition’ are invoked by male leaders who wish for women to continue in their subservient role. The ‘protection’ of Sudanese values often means protecting men’s control over women.
The absence of education, reflected in the high percentage of illiteracy, has seriously hampered the awareness of rights amongst women, and is in turn an essential cause for the failure of absence for women’s identification of their rights, and the retardation of women’s movement. Attempts by successive governments to promote women’s education, proved half-hearted and temporary, not serious enough to make a major impact on the systematic educational disadvantages suffered by women.
For most Sudanese women, the heavy burdens of their everyday lives, including the responsibilities of providing for their families and bringing up their children, are such that they have no time or energy to pursue the self-advancement and collective mobilisation that is essential for their political advancement.
In Sudan, most women identify their ‘rights’ solely as those privileges that are permitted by the existing patriarachal society. Their outlook is still under the direct effect of a male-dominated value system. For these women to consider themselves equal to men is unthinkable. Women themselves extend this outlook to their daughters through the socialisation that restricts every detail in girl’s life.
Sudan is fortunate in that it had one of the earliest and most vigorous women’s movements in the Arab and African worlds. However, the limited success of this movement attests to the enduring power of male domination and the many social and cultural weapons in the hands of those who wish to maintain patriarchal domination. The Sudanese women’s movement scored major successes from the 1950s to the 1970s in terms of extending basic legal rights to women. But since the 1970s, the Sudanese women’s movement has not flourished and has not had the chance to extend its demands. The next challenge for the women’s movement was to emancipate women by extending social and economic rights to them, including health, education and employment. But both social mores and governmental legislation (or lack of it) stood in the way of Sudanese women achieving this logical next step.
In many cases the women’s movement was forced to compromise its demands on important issues fearing the reaction of the (male-dominated) wider society. An example is the experience of women who raised the issue of female genital mutilation. They feared that a campaign on this issue would risk having a negative effect on girls’ education (families would refuse to send their girls to schools), so the women compromised and dropped the issue for a while.
The women’s movement has faced other obstacles. Intellectual men did not support women’s efforts to stand for their rights. More widely, the division of labour in Sudanese society, puts heavy burdens on women, giving them large responsibilities towards their families that did not allow them the time to participate fully in the movement.
The Roles of Sudanese Governments
Since independence, none of Sudan’s governments nor political parties took seriously enough the question of women’s demands and rights. They did not support women’s issues in their programmes.
Discriminatory laws and rules were passed through legislative bodies without serious resistance from women. For example, the law says that a woman who is responsible for a family, her husband and her children cannot be legally responsible for herself. This is reflected in the restrictions put on women’s free movement during the last three successive governments.
It seems that the patriarchal authority needed legislation in order to extend its power. This was obtained by introducing interpretations of Islamic law highly favourable to men. In the personal law for example, women are beneath men. If a woman is called to testify, she is considered a half witness (two women’s testimonies are considered equal to one man testimony). The contradiction here can be absurd because a woman judge who is qualified to decide on a court case is yet considered a half person when testifying.
The role of women in Sudanese politics since independence has been impressive. Women’s participation in the October Revolution and the April Intifada were important to the success of these democratic challenges. The powerful abilities of Sudanese women are evident. However these abilities were never recognized and promoted by the official authorities. For example, women who always struggled alongside men were not then rewarded with positions in the governmental system, except for very few examples.
During the May regime (1969-85), in spite of the may rights formally gained by women in legislation, only one woman was appointed as a minister (Dr. Fatima Abdel Mahmoud). During the democratic election of 1986, women not only constituted a major source for votes but also worked hard during the preparation for the elections believing in their roles as citizens who aspired for a better status for themselves. However when the democratic government took office, only one woman was appointed as a minister (Rashidah Abdel Karim, minister of social welfare). The general situation of women under the democratic government of 1986-89 did not improve, but at least female members of political parties abd trade unions and professional women were able to express themselves without being faced with physical or psychological abuse.
The seizure of power by the NIF in 1989 brought about a major change in which there was an unprecedented open assault on women’s rights, including the right of women to participate fully and freely in the political life of the Sudanese nation. An unprecented record of discrimination and abuse against women has occurred during the post-1989 government. Sudanese women have not only seen their slow advance brought to a halt, but a dramatic retardation in which rights that had been won by struggle over previous decades have been stripped away. This paper will not enumerate the wide range of measures that have been passed into law or arbitrarily enforced by the NIF in the areas of employment, education, freedom of movement, legal standing, political rights, culture etc. The participation of women in government administration has also been reduced, with no women given ministerial posts and only one woman (Dr Ihsan Gabshawi) given a high political post inside the government (and this despite an active women’s branch within the NIF).
The position of women within the National Democratic Alliance and its constituent parties is incomparably better. It is here that the tradition of the Sudanese women’s movement and its struggle for women’s rights is to be found, including the active participation of many veterans such as Ustaza Fatima Ahmed Ibrahim. However, there are also causes for serious concern about the NDA’s commitment to women’s rights. The most significant of these is Article 5 of the Asmara Declaration, in which the NDA appears to grant more importance to Sudanese traditions (implying a patriarchal interpretation of Islamic doctrine) than to the United Nations Convention on women’s rights, in which discrimination against women is prohibited. The NDA’s reluctance to make an unconditional commitment to women’s rights makes it hard for Sudanese women to believe that a future NDA government would enact basic and fundamental improvements to the position of women’s rights.
2. HEALTH RIGHTS
A health service is one of the basic needs in every society. It is essential for the progress of any country and for its development. Health rights are particularly important for women, given their roles as mothers. In democratic societies which grant rights to women, it is women who are the main users of health services, both for themselves and their children. The decline of Sudan’s health service, while due to many economic and political factors, has had a disproportionate impact on women. Any government with genuine concern for the rights of women will make it a priority to begin a thorough rehabilitation of Sudan’s health service.
During successive governments in Sudan, the national health services have generally been in decline. During the 1970s, some medical centres were built in both rural and urban areas but these were not sufficient to provide health services to all those who needed it. These medical centres were mainly used for vaccination, dressing and first aid operations. Since 1989, as well as the continuing decay (especially in rural areas), Sudan has witnessed unprecedented emigration among medical professionals. Political harrasment, dismissal of doctors from their jobs and the unfair conditions they work in, were among the causes for mass emigration. Only an estimated two thousand out of fourteen thousand qualified Sudanese doctors now work in the whole country.
From independence until the 1990s, a free service was provided in the general hospitals. Although it was not perfect, at least it was uncommercialised and most of the people had access to it, especially in the cities. However, the current government has abandoned this principle. Increasingly, health services are provided only on the basis of payment. Even governmental and charitable hospitals demand fees, and many private hospitals have been opened on the basis of payment for services.
The high prices of both the service and medicines have made it difficult for poor people to afford them. Women, as both the main users of health services and generally as poorer than men, have been the main losers. The poorest amongst the poorer are women. Some studies show a high percentage of mortality amongst women. The income of those who work in the public sector and especially women, is very low. Women in the gynaecology sections in the general hospitals, die because the hospital cannot provide them with free medication including blood transfusions.
Malnutrition and absence of health treatment are direct causes for illness and death. There is a high mortality amongst women and children in Sudan because of malnutrition and lack of medical treatment. The spread of epidemics like malaria and the absence of prophylaxis, have caused a high mortality amongst women, especially pregnant women. In the case of pregnant women, two lives are lost, the mother and the unborn baby.
Female Genital Mutilation
The practice of female circumcision, now generally called female genital mutilation (FGM) is a social and cultural tradition practised in all areas of Sudan except the South and some parts of the west. In spite of long campaigns led by different groups in Sudanese society, such as the convoy organised by the Faculty of Medicine, University of Khartoum, and the issuance of laws by the different governments in Sudan, this cruel practice remains common. It is common even amongst the most educated people, including doctors and university lecturers, which is a clear indicator of its deep social roots.
The tradition of FGM is a physical abuse against female children and a violation of their rights. Patriarchal society’s dominant influence over women, makes society believe that a girl’s circumcision is an essential social guarantee for the future of the girl.
The practice of FGM has never been taken seriously by successive Sudanese governments. Since colonial days, governments have been content to simply legislate to outlaw the practice, but not take any further practical steps to discourage it. It has never been discussed in any parliament. FGM needs more than laws or temporary campaigns to stop it. It needs a profound change in social attitudes. This can only be accomplished over a long period of time, by involving a broad cross-section of Sudanese women themselves in understanding the deleterious effects of FGM. We should ask why laws against FGM have proved so ineffective and impossible to enforce. The reasons lie in the deep social and cultural roots of the practice, which mean that any simple attempts to criminalise it and punish those who practice it will simply bring the law into disrepute, and make people believe that their culture is under threat from alien values enforced by an oppressive state. Which Sudanese policemen would be ready to arrest a respected citizen for practising FGM? What judge would be ready to pass sentence?
Probably the most effective approach is to begin by concentrating on the serious health problems for women that commonly follow from FGM, and not treating it as a human rights issue, still less as a crime. Culturally-sensitive language (i.e. speaking of ‘circumcision’ rather than ‘genital mutilation’) will help in gaining acceptance and consensus. The health aspects of FGM are the least controversial and concentrating on them brings the greatest chances of gaining widespread acceptance for a campaign against FGM, thereby encouraging women (who are the ones who actually carry out the operation) to reduce it. Over time, as social attitudes change and FGM becomes regarded as the exception rather than the norm, it may be appropriate to legislate to make it a criminal offence. This approach is not an easy or soft one: it will take more energy and resources to change social attitudes than to pass a law.
The question of health services in Sudan is a wider question than women’s rights. But for many women the provision of health is such a basic issue that it is right for it to be treated at the head of the list of recommendations. A future transitional government committed to the rights of women should recognise this and act accordingly. Some of the specific recommendations include the following
3. PERSONAL LAW
The existing personal law was issued in 1991. It concerns only Moslems. Non-Moslems are ruled by different laws according to the mores in their areas, but, it should be noted, have considerably reduced rights under the law.
An interpretation of the Shari’a is the basis for the 1991 personal law. It should be noted that this law is in many respects similar to the Islamic law proposed by the democratic government in 1988, at a time when Dr Hassan al Turabi was Attorney General and the current leaders of the NDA were mostly in high government positions. Many Sudanese women fear that the NDA will itself be disposed to interpret Islam and Sudanese traditions in a similar way, so as to control women and deprive them of their full rights and humanity. Sudanese women believe that this approach is not only contrary to basic human rights but is contrary to the spirit and letter of religion including Islam.
Sudanese society with its different religions and cultures, should be ruled with one common law for the equality and unity of the country. The essence of the United Nations conventions is justice, peace and equality: principles that do not contradict the essence of the religions
The personal status of Moslem act in the 1991 law, defines marriage as a contract between a man and a woman. A woman’s actions are subject to the approval of her male guardian. This means marriage is actually a contract between one man (the guardian, usually the father or senior male relative) and another man (the future husband). This is a clear violation of a woman’s right to act for herself.
The law has certain clear and unacceptable implications. It gives the male guardian the right to force the woman into a marriage she may not like to accept. It gives the guardian the right to cancel any marriage entered into by the woman without his acceptance. In addition the law interferes in arranging the steps before marriage in an unfair manner, contrary to Sudanese customs, for example by forcing the woman to return the pre-engagement period presents to the ex-fiance.
The new marriage law introduced in 1991 is a dramatic demonstration of the reassertion of patriarchal authority by the current government
In Sudan, the problem of marriage breakdown is usually solved between the concerned families themselves, either by separating and divoercing the couple on a mutually satisfactory basis or by persuading them to stay together. Women who find themselves forced to go to court in order to get a divorce are faced with the unfairness of the law. It is very simple for a man to divorce his wife simply by pronouncing the words ‘you are divorced’. He does not need to go to the court. On the other hand it is extremely difficult for the woman to obtain a divorce without going to court and facing humiliating questions asked by the judge. Also in this case, granting the divorce depends on conditions that the woman needs to prove, which can be very difficult for a woman
Bait al Ta’a
One of the most objectionable aspects of the personal law of 1991, is the manner in which it forces the wife to obey her husband. No conditions were made to this obedience. That means if the husband does not want his wife to work, she has no choice but to obey him. If she refuses, he could prevent her from working and moreover, force her into Bait al Ta’a, seclusion, including the right of the husband to retrieve his wife by force from her family should she try to go there (a ‘right’ that had formerly been abolished under pressure from the Sudan Women’s Union
Polygamy in modern times is an insult to the woman’s dignity and humanity. The applied law during the different Sudanese governments does not consider polygamy a cause for divorce. The law of 1991 does not prohibit polygamy. This is clear in Article 51 which concerns the husband’s duty towards his wife: he should permit her to visit her parents and relatives, and he should not discriminate between his wives if has more than one. Also Article 19 of the same law clearly allows polygamy, by only prohibiting a man from marrying more than four women, even if one of them is disabled.
The government is in fact encouraging polygamy which is not advised in Qura’n. The Islamic religion puts almost an impossible condition on polygamy which is not followed in the above law
4. CIVIL AND POLITICAL RIGHTS
Sudanese women gained many of the rights they demanded after a long struggle. During the 1960s and 1970s, women were at last able to vote and be elected. They gained the right to work, the right of equal pay, and the right to maternity leave with pay. The right to a free breast-feeding hour for nursing mothers in employment was won. Women gained the right to an education and went on to become well-represented in the University of Khartoum. According to the rights gained, women joined the army, the police force and the civil services,. Immediately women proved their capability and good performance in every post they occupied. Sudanese women enjoyed relatively a better status compared to the other women in Africa and the Arab countries. The serious efforts of Sudanese women and the great role played by them through the Sudanese Women’s Union, qualified it later to win the United Nations Prize for Human Rights in 1993.
However, the 1980s and 1990s have been decades for retreat. In the last years of the May regime the status of women started to change for the worse. New laws were applied, targeting women, notably in the application of the Shari’a from 1983 onwards. Today, at the end of the 1990s, under the National Islamic Government, Sudanese women are deprived of their rights and targeted in almost every conceivable way because of their gender, cultural backgrounds and their political opinions. Women’s organisations and associations are not allowed to function freely. Women who do not comply with the NIF ideology have been dismissed from their jobs, and replaced by the NIF cadres. One of the measures that has most restricted women’s rights is the limitation on the freedom of women to travel unless accompanied by a close male relative (muhrim).
Women political activists from different parties and organisations have been imprisoned and harassed. Women have been forced to perform the PDF military service, even if they are sick, and those who have refused to perform the service have lost their jobs and are unable to find others. Women human rights activists are beaten in the streets, taken to the security offices for more abuse and imprisoned without facing any trial or being charged. Mothers and other protesters against the recruitment of student are arrested and flogged for their protests.
Until the current government, torturing women was almost unknown to Sudanese. But today, women in detention are beaten up, are forced to stand the whole day under the sun. Many are subjected to arbitrary punishments such as lashing. Perhaps the most dreadful torture is to rape women and threaten women with rape. Under this government, many cases of rape are known to the human rights organisations. In the war areas, rape has become so widespread and systematic that it appears to be a matter of policy. In urban areas, detained women are vulnerable to rape. Threats of rape are made to force women to give information and to stop them from continuing any political or human rights activities.
Some of the additional measures that indicate discrimination against women in the highest reaches of the political system include the following
The following recommendations are over and above the obligations on a future Transitional Government to respect civil and political liberties for all Sudanese citizens. Because of the deeply-entrenched discrimination against women, some additional measures will be needed
5. FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION
In Sudan, the combination of different cultures have created a unique society in its social traditions. This creation has historically reflected in more open and tolerant society than many other societies in Africa and the Arab world. Folklore, dancing and singing is in the nature of every Sudanese from any part of the country. There is no Sudanese tribe in any part of the country that is without an authentic African heritage. Tribes are known from their folklore. Before the rise of the NIF, Sudanese men and women could express themselves by dancing without being socially harassed. Folklore bands could travel abroad officially to present these dances and folklore to the other people of the world. Then art and artists were considered ambassadors representing Sudan. People used to enjoy this simple respectable life before the restrictions imposed on them by the current government.
The Penal Code of 1992 and the Public Order Code of 1996, deprived women of their freedoms in a very discriminating and often humiliating manner. some of these laws were first introduced by the May regime in its last years of rule. In these laws women are treated like an object and a devil that is created only to seduce men. Women are regarded irresponsible, weak and unable to protect themselves
This campaign of subordination and suppression to Sudanese women is stripping from them their rights as human beings who need to express themselves in different ways and in different fields. The idea behind these laws is not only to suppress women as gender but also to stop their well known powerful political roles, by denying their rights in expressing themselves and their political opinions. Sudanese society will never achieve balanced social changes and social progress with the existence of such laws that strip from human beings their fundamental rights.
6. EDUCATIONAL RIGHTS
Education is a basic human right. It is essential for the development of society. Education was one of the first demands of the Sudanese women’s movement. The first step after gaining the right of education, was to teach women how to read and write. Girls were faced with their families’ opposition to let them go to schools. It was not in the male authorities’ interest to let girls obtain education and gradually lose control over them.
At the end of the 20th century, we are faced with a high rate of illiteracy amongst Sudanese. In rural areas it reaches to almost 85% and is even higher amongst women (90%). In these areas, partly as a result of illiteracy, women are restricted to very limited roles such as working in the fields and doing domestic work and childcare. Their life chances are extremely limited. Respecting the educational rights of all Sudanese by providing education for all, would be a major step. Women who constitute half of the population should not be deprived of their educational rights.
Some of the major problems faced by girls trying to obtain an education include the unwillingness of their families to send them to mixed schools, and the difficulties of transport in rural areas which mean that girls can only receive an education when they live close to a school or can go and stay with a relative who does.
In this area, as in others, the modest progress of earlier years has been reversed by the NIF. The current government of Sudan has introduced new regulations that discriminate against women in the field of education. For example there is discrimination against student girls in university studies. Some subjects are taught to male students while girls students are excluded. Some colleges are booked only for male students, including the Law Faculty in Omdurman University, the Marines Sciences at the Faculty of Sciences in the Red Sea University, and also the Department of Survey, the faculty of Engineering University of Khartoum.
The law governing higher education does not itself discriminate between men and women, it is merely the administrative regulations of certain institutions, under the aegis of the NIF, that has created and sustained this discrimination.
Education is a right for every Sudanese and it is the government’s duty to provide educational services for all.
7. ECONOMIC RIGHTS
Having achieved basic civil and political liberties, the next step in the struggle for women’s rights is social and economic rights. It is important that promoting women’s economic rights is not seen as an alternative to respecting their civil and political rights, or an excuse for continuing to deny these rights. Civil and political rights must advance hand in hand with social and economic rights.
Women in Agriculture
Women play a major role in the development of economy. In the agricultural sector they provide the majority of the labour force, both in subsistence farming and in the irrigated sector. They work under difficult conditions as a result of decades-old cultural practices that limit their roles. Women are often paid less than men for the same task. In some areas women are usually paid in kind (usually food), which amounts to a discrimination in pay. Almost all women work without any social security in case of illness. A woman’s income is also often not her own: her husband or male guardian can confiscate it and the woman has no recourse.
Women farmers face major obstacles in trying to increase their production. They are usually not given loans to buy agricultural tools to help them during the process of production. Social traditions and the ties of bringing up families prevent women from emigrating to other parts of the country or abroad, forcing them to accept the unfair conditions of work that men have refused to tolerate.
Improving the economic rights of women in the farming sector has importance beyond justice and human rights. Sudan is a poor and famine-prone country, and rural areas are most vulnerable. Women-headed households are the most vulnerable to food crises. A programme of improving women’s food production will be an effective way of rendering Sudan less vulnerable to famine in the future: in short, a good investment.
Women in the Public Sector
Women are deprived of their economic rights in the civil service. For example, although public sector employees are entitled to residential land, a woman cannot be allocated a plot of land if her husband owns one or owns a house. If the husband does not own a plot or a house, then the woman’s right to this plot is transferred to him. Secondly, women are denied the right to claim dependency allowances, but a man can claim for his spouse and children. Thirdly, the demands of childcare and the limited opportunities for promotion forces women into early resignation which prevents them from receiving their full wage rises and pensions that they deserve. This problem must be tackled from both ends: legislation for equal treatment should be enforced and workplaces should be encouraged to make provisions for childcare and part-time work for working mothers.
Women in Trade
For many Sudanese women, small-scale trade is a lifeline for survival. Particularly for displaced women living on the edges of big cities, the only means of providing for themselves and their families is by working in the informal sector. The work and services provided by these women fills an important niche in the Sudanese economy: almost all Sudanese urban residents benefit from the tea and cooked food sold by women traders, from the laundry and other work they do, etc.
However, the current government is highly unsympathetic to these women. A succession of regulations and laws have been applied to them without any appreciation of their needs and circumstances, nor of the economic demands they are fulfilling. The Penal Code of 1992 contains articles that prevent women from selling food after sunset, while men are allowed to work at any time. In some cases, working after sunset is the peak time for business, for example in Port Sudan, where women sell food, tea or coffee for those who work in the afternoon and night shifts. Before this government came to power, women were allowed to work in business and joined men in the small markets where they earned their living. They were not pressured by restrictions on such work. A future Transitional Government should immediately lift these restrictions.
The restrictions made on women’s movement also hinder them from trading. Women cannot mix with men in the market for fear that they would be arrested under various regulations including allegations of prostitution. Women cannot travel abroad to develop their business, while men are allowed to.
Women who sell liquor are particularly repressed on the grounds that it is contrary to the Shari’a. The men who buy these alcoholic drinks are much less vulnerable to any police or legal action. This is not only an abuse but a double standard. The law on prostitution is also extremely vaguely worded and can be used to convict women on the basis of virtually no evidence, perhaps solely because a law enforcement official or administrator wishes to punish a lady who has rejected his advances. This is also abusive and smacks of double standards.
Women working for the public or the private sector have always suffered from some male harassment. They are targeted with sexual comments, abusive behaviour and other sorts of harassing acts. This is not only abusive in and of itself but is a major discouragement to women playing an active role in the workforce. Some women are driven out of employment altogether because they cannot stand the abuse and humiliation and they have no recourse, while others internalise the insults and come to believe that they have no role in formal employment.
Until relatively recently, the opportunity for a woman to take formal employment depended on the attitude and permission of her family. Only liberal families allowed their daughters to work, and then they chose the quality and the location of work for them. The most respected job for a woman was teaching in girls’ school. Giving knowledge and education to others was prestigious for the women teachers and gave pride to their families. As more women became educated, society became more open, and economic crisis created a demand for extra incomes, it became easier for women to work in the formal sector with fewer restrictions and without moral condemnation.
However, this increase in female participation in the workforce has not been accompanied by a comparable shift in male attitudes. Many women are targetted for sexual harassment at the workplace. Government policies and attitudes, expressed in legislation and through the media, tacitly endorse male attitudes that promote harassment.
It is very difficult for women to complain against sexual harrassment. The harasser is often in a senior position or has authority over his victim. A woman who complains may be told she is lucky even to have a job, and what should she expect if she chooses to leave the protection of her home to work with men. Society tends to take the side of the abuser and not spring to the defence of the woman victim, instead blaming her for exposing herself to the harassment. Women are also fearful to complain because this would risk them losing their jobs, failing to gain promotion, or being branded with a bad reputation.
8. DISPLACED FAMILIES
The displaced are some of the most vulnerable people in Sudan. Although they number in millions, they are practically invisible when it comes to politics. But they are Sudanese citizens and should be treated equally with all others.
Most of the displaced families consist of women and children. They were forced to leave their homes for different reasons, especially war and poverty. Displaced people were always neglected by the different governments. The government and town residents look at them as intruders and not full Sudanese citizens. Racism against the displaced is not only practised by the Northern Sudanese, but also by other Sudanese: every town, North and South, discriminates against the displaced. But the conditions of the Southern displaced around the Northern cities is perhaps the most critical, and these people are subjected to the most blatant discrimination and abuse. Under successive governments, but particularly since 1991, displaced people have seen their modest homes violently destroyed, and have been removed by force to new places in the desert. Some have been killed. They work in the most menial occupations. They live in places with no facilities like water supplies, electricity, access to health services, education etc.
Displaced women are amongst the first victims of the authorities’ policies against the displaced. They are most exposed to ill-treatment. Their native culture and the lack of income forces many displaced women to brew alcohol, which is against the law as it exists. This exposes them to the charges of brewing and selling alcohol and then to punishment, starting from flogging and fines and ranging up to imprisonment. Their children are the street kids, who because of hunger, wander in the streets searching for food or small jobs. Their poverty and need for food, forces them to get involved in crimes especially stealing. Some of them use glue and gasoline as drugs The government does not protect these children. Moreover, often they are arrested and taken to camps where they are given training to become soldiers. They may be stripped of their religion and culture and the Christians may be forced into Islam. They are taken away from their families which makes them feel more lonely.
Displaced people have virtually no political representation. The current government allows them to choose chiefs (all men) who negotiate on their behalf, but these chiefs are often corrupted and fail to truly represent the demands of their constituents. In previous democratic periods the displaced have not been allowed to vote. Townspeople commonly fear that the votes from the displaced will swing the political balance in urban constituencies. But the displaced cannot return home to cast their votes. As a result, the displaced remain disenfranchised.
The challenge of the displaced will be a major problem confronting a future Transitional Government. Peace in the South and the Nuba Mountains will help by enabling many displaced to return to their home areas. But it will not solve the problem: many will stay, and many will declare their intention to integrate into the economic life of the northern cities. As Sudanese citizens, the Government will have to treat them with respect.
There is an urgent need to deal with displaced people without discrimination and with deeper understanding of their circumstances and culture. Their rights should be acknowledged and protected. This could begin with legislation based on international Conventions that prohibit discrimination.
8. WOMEN IN PRISON
The purpose of a sentence of imprisonment is ostensibly to reform the offender through punishment, followed by rehabilitation in order to enable him or her to be a useful citizen after the sentence is completed. However, prisons in Sudan today spectacularly fail to serve any wider social purpose. They merely remove criminals from the wider society to a prison environment, while also incarcerating large numbers of poor and vulnerable people who are driven by desperation into activities that are prohibited by law. Prison has become a means of repression against the poor and displaced, and despite attempts by some Islamic philanthropic organisations to make them into centres of Islamic evangelism, the reformist element is conspicuously absent.
Women are regularly imprisoned by the public order courts and the regular courts, often on trivial charges after summary trials, and for failing to pay minor fines. (The commonest charges include brewing alcohol, selling food without a license and prostitution.) The women’s prison in Omdurman is a very degrading place. Women on widely different charges are imprisoned together. The convicted and the unconvicted are kept together. Women political detainees are kept with criminals and petty offenders. Mentally ill prisoners are also kept with the healthy ones, in clear violation to the law.
Imprisoned women live in a very adverse circumstances. The prison itself is unhealthy. Most of the women do not have beds or covers during the winter. The food is very poor. The prison has a small room used as a clinic but it does not provide medical treatment to the women prisoners. It seems no health budget is allocated to the prisons. Pregnant prisoners do not receive the care that they and their unborn children require.
There are few if any opportunities for women prisoners to obtain an education or become literate. Women offenders leave prison more impoverished and embittered than when they enter, and therefore are unlikely to be ‘reformed.’
The guards for the women’s prison are often untrained and are often abusive and arbitrary. Prisoners are subjected to various forms of abuse and are denied many rights. Convicted women, especially prostitutes, are vulnerable to rape by male prison officers and policemen. Prison staff enjoy almost complete impunity at the expense of prisoners, who have no means to complain about the treatment they receive.
The children of the imprisoned women who are under the age of two years old live with their mother in these bad conditions. No milk or proper food is given to them; neither do their mothers receive additional rations. Children who are sick may be taken to hospital, but usually the mother is not permitted to accompany them--on the assumption that a mother would be ready to abandon her sick child and try to run away. There are known cases where the sick children of imprisoned women have been abandoned in the hospital wards by the prison guards who were supposed to look after them, and have died. These children have committed no offence but are punished for the supposed misdemeanours of their mothers in the most cruel manner.
In 1986, the elected government tried to abolish the ‘September Laws’ of 1983. Amongst these laws was the punishment of flogging. The government proposed a new programme of reform by going back to the more humane laws that incorporated prisoners’ rights. This programme aimed to retrain prison officers, rehabilitate prison buildings and to modernise the law. Unfortunately this programme was abolished by the current government of Sudan. Qualified cadres were dismissed from their jobs and human rights activities were not allowed amongst workers. The prison department lost its independence after security officers joined it. The prison college was dissolved into the police college. An excellent opportunity for improving prison conditions in Sudan was lost.
Sudan’s entire penal system needs a radical overhaul, with special attention to the rights and humanity of female prisoners.