[I wrote this essay in July 2007 while working for Darfur Peace and Development Organization in North Darfur, Sudan. There I helped the women develop the first Women’s Centers. The latest news from Sudan suggests that Darfur is again becoming the target of genocidal ambitions. Here’s was happened the last time around – and in the same town of Kutum.]
Her name is Saadia, or Fatiah, or Amena. In her vividly hued tobe, she is strikingly beautiful, even elegant, amidst the desolation of her new home, a camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs).
She has lost her father or brother(s) or husband to murder or soldiering. Her home has been torched to ashy ruin. Violence has driven her from the land she once farmed to feed her family. She hasn’t eaten a normal meal in two or three years. Her children are malnourished. She has watched some of them die from diseases that medical intervention easily could have prevented. And she has been raped.
The IDP women of Darfur have been primary targets of the genocide that has ravaged the western region of Sudan. It is nearly impossible to overstate their needs in the face of massive violence.
Like their violated sisters throughout the world, they endure physical injuries, unwanted pregnancies, miscarriages, psychological illness, ostracism by their husbands and families, and accusations of adultery.
An estimated 85% of Darfuri women have been subjected to Female Genital Cutting, making them more vulnerable to injury, AIDS infection and other diseases from sexual assault.
Most survivors suffer the debilitating effects of rape in silence, isolation and depression.
Humanitarian groups estimate that tens of thousands of women have been raped. No comprehensive statistics exist. And, as is common in the US, many women do not report these crimes.
Violence against Darfuri women has produced the most severe crisis in women’s health and human rights in the world today.
Yet no systematic treatment response been established. Nor have Sudanese women in community-based organizations been prepared, by culture or circumstance, to provide effective rape crisis intervention on the scale required in the camps. Women and their needs remain nearly invisible in the humanitarian and political landscape of the Darfur crisis.
The long struggle in developed countries to provide assistance to rape victims has produced many effective tools. Darfur Peace and Development Organization is adapting these tools in a pilot program called the Kassab Women’s Center.
The Center is being established in phases in Kassab IDP camp near Kuttum in North Darfur. At full deployment, it will offer integrated programs to support women’s protection, family income, and health recovery – both physical and psychological.
The Solar Cooker program provides locally available materials for construction of low-tech stoves and training in their use – reducing the risk of rape while gathering firewood.
The Women’s Handcrafts Cooperative gives women the opportunity to create their traditional baskets for sale in the U.S and regionally in Africa
In the context of addressing household needs, the women receive professional guidance through the thorny terrain of trauma resolution – the “stitch and bitch” model of women’s group problem solving. Reproductive health professionals are part of the team.
Although the number of potential clients is enormous, we can begin serving only a core group of 200-300 women. In time, they will be sufficiently enabled and trained to be agents for change — supporting the recovery of their sisters throughout the region.
In Darfur, logistics challenge every positive initiative. Funding arrives unpredictably. Each element moves forward in baby steps. However, the operation of the center is fueled by the belief that women are the hope of Darfur. Without their wisdom and energy, no lasting peace is possible.
We privileged women of the West have a unique opportunity to help lift our sister in need from sorrow so that they can refashion their lives and their homeland. It’s a summons we cannot ignore.