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Nowhere to Turn, Indeed

June 9, 2009

In addition to drawing some much needed attention to sexual violence experienced by Darfuri women, the publication of the recent report Nowhere to Turn: Failure to Protect, Support and Assure Justice for Darfuri Women, by Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) and the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI), has reignited discussions concerning how Darfuri women are portrayed in the save Darfur movement. The movement as a whole has been accused of everything from portraying women as helpless to selectively reporting cases of violence against women. Disturbingly, even organizations that should be the most sensitive to women’s issues are guilty of these skewed portrayals of Darfuri women. Specifically, the Save Darfur Coalition has an entire Violence Against Women campaign and, furthermore, employs Niemat Ahmadi, a Darfuri who used to counsel victims of rape in Darfur, so they should be immune to a lot of these problems, right? Wrong. Their Violence Against Women campaign is actually one of the more patronizing, politically biased campaigns out there.

Upon studying SDC’s Violence Against Women materials, you’ll see a common problem that plagues many groups that want to talk about women in conflict regions: They relegate them to victimhood. They’re portrayed as helpless, defenseless innocents who need the West to intervene and save them. Take, for example, this video which SDC peddles on its Violence Against Women site. It describes the women of Darfur using words like “vulnerable,” and only after it has bombarded the viewer with all kinds of humanitarian pornography does it finally make a perfunctory attempt at not appearing too patronizing and paternalistic by saying “but they are not helpless.” It then cuts to Ahmadi saying:

There are so many stories of how women defend themselves and how they give courage to their men to defend them.

First off, I’m sure there are stories of how these women defend themselves, unfortunately, you will not hear them by watching this video. I don’t even know what to say about the “give courage to their men to defend them” bit other than to point out the obvious: it reinforces the “vulnerable victim” portrayal of Darfuri women. Note that the language used in the video isn’t the result of an oversight, either.  Indeed, non-profits spend many months deciding the exact phrasing to use in the videos they produce.

Interestingly, Sudanese anthropologist Amal Hassan Fadlalla has proposed that this is very similar to what the government of Sudan (GOS) is doing: While some in the save Darfur movement are saying that the West needs to swoop in and protect Darfuri women, the GOS is saying that “national men” (i.e. native Sudanese men) need to protect the honor of the nation’s women from the invading West.  They both use gendered language to describe the conflict.

One reason I find the portrayal of these women as victims particularly infuriating is because it’s so easy to not portray them that way. Take the very first thing you read concerning women in Kosovo when you visit the Women for Women International site (accessed May 25th, 2009):

The resilience of the women in Kosovo is unsurpassed. Ethnic cleansing, massacres, and unthinkable atrocities have only strengthened their conviction to rebuild their lives and restore peace in their nation.

See the difference? Right off the bat, it’s made clear that they’re not helpless victims, but rather strong, proactive survivors. Hell, I want to be like them…minus the horrible suffering, of course. That one sentence shows more respect for Kosovar women than that whole video did for Darfuri women. Or how about this video which talks about the plight of women in Darfur and about their bravery and willingness to stand up in the face of misogyny.

See?  It has two freakin’ white, Western males talking about the plight of Darfuri women, and it somehow comes off as less patronizing than the slick video SDC produced because it emphasizes how women stood up in the face of violent oppression. Unbelievable! The team of SDC employees and consultants who come up with the language for SDC’s Violence Against Women campaign should try to meet with someone from Women for Women or Ivan Gayton, the guy who made the video above. They might learn something.

But the problem I find most egregious is that SDC’s Violence Against Women campaign seems more than happy to focus on sexual violence perpetrated by the Janjaweed or other proxies of the GOS, but shies away from reporting sexual violence perpetrated by other actors, for some reason.

At one point, the SDC-produced movie discussed above very quickly alludes to the fact that rape may not be committed by the Janjaweed alone. This is probably just so that people can’t dismiss the video as being completely biased. The voiceover says:

Rape is sponsored, sanctioned and condoned by the Sudanese government as part of a systematic campaign. Sudanese forces and the Janjaweed use sexual violence as a tool of intimidation and terror. Tragically but predictably, sexual violence is now endemic in Darfur. Years of continued insecurity have lead to an increase in opportunistic rape by a multitude of actors.

That’s the only time that the video suggests that people other than the Janjaweed may be participating in rape.

Furthermore, SDC’s Violence Against Women Fact Sheet makes a very clever effort to appear unbiased, at first. In the first paragraph, similarly to the video, it perfunctorily mentions that a “wide range of actors” participate in gender-based violence:

Sexual violence has become endemic in Darfur and is a defining component of the conflict. The Sudanese government and its militias continue to conduct a targeted campaign of sexual violence against women and girls. And this campaign has created a culture of impunity that has resulted in widespread gender-based violence by a wide range of actors. Women live in constant fear of sexual violence, a phenomenon that contributes to the region’s instability and is rapidly breaking down the social fabric in Darfur.

Judging from the first paragraph, it sounds like it might be a well balanced document, right? And it should be, seeing as how these other “actors” are responsible for a large portion of the violence. Indeed, according to PHR and HHI’s findings “…half [of the incidences of rape] were assaults by Chadian villagers near the United Nations (UN) refugee camp…” Alas, throughout the entire two pages of the fact sheet, only three bullet points address sexual violence perpetrated by people other than the GOS or its proxies, like the Janjaweed. The majority of the bullets focus on the role of the GOS:

Rape and other forms of sexual violence are used as a weapon of war by Sudanese government forces and their proxy militia, the janjaweed.

Women and girls living in displaced persons camps remain at risk for sexual assault. Women are targeted, harassed, and raped when they leave the camps, both by the Sudanese police and military and janjaweed militiamen.

Sudanese forces and police should immediately stop harassing and attacking women attempting to leave camps or while they collect sustenance materials

While no one concerned with the conflict disagrees that the GOS plays a huge role in violence against women and has been responsible for most of the sexual violence, groups other than SDC have not downplayed the role of other perpetrators. Historically, journalists have documented the fact that the GOS and other parties are responsible for violence against women, not just the GOS. According to the BBC:

[Darfuri rape survivor] Hawa blames the government-backed Arab militias or Janjaweed that linger outside. But, in truth, the rebel groups also account for their fair share of crime.

Concerning rape, Reuters reported in 2005 that:

All sides of the conflict have committed the crime…the main rebel group, the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA), and the Arab militias, known locally as Janjaweed. According to Mobina Jaffer, Canada’s Special Envoy to the Peace Process in Sudan, “One woman said first the Janjaweed came and raped her village. Then the SLA came and raped.”

In 2006, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour reported:

The gravity of the situation is compounded by the rebels’ abusive conduct. They, too, are responsible for killing, raping, maiming, torturing and destroying the livelihoods of civilians who have the misfortune of standing in their destructive path. And they, too, must be held accountable for such violations of international human rights and humanitarian law as it applies to non-State actors. Yet impunity is rampant. The vast majority of crimes are not prosecuted and go unpunished at all levels, from foot-soldiers up to high-level Government officials and rebel leaders with command responsibility.

According to Human Rights Watch:

Rebels and former rebels have directly targeted civilians from other non-Arab groups and attacked African Union (AU) peacekeepers and humanitarian workers trying to provide assistance to Darfuris… Looting, beatings, murder, and rape perpetrated primarily (but not exclusively) by government forces, Janjaweed, and former rebels have created a climate of fear that impinges on everyday life for millions of people in towns, villages, and displaced persons camps.

Even Darfuris have said that the rebels are partly responsible for sexual violence. Osman Hummaida, director of the Sudanese Organization Against Torture, reported that:

Rapes are committed by all parties including rebel groups.

Most recently, findings released in the report by PHR and HHI on May 31st, which investigates sexual violence experienced by women in the Farchana refugee camp, also suggest that the GOS isn’t the only party to blame for sexual violence. The report definitely addresses the horrible sexual violence committed by the GOS and the Janjaweed, saying:

Assailants were typically described as fair-skinned and wearing green or khaki uniforms with head wraps. Interviewees noted that the assailants often spoke Arabic and rode horses or camels. The village was usually surrounded by a large number of perpetrators and attacks often occurred in the early morning. Concurrent air strikes were another common feature.

Unlike SDC’s documents, however, the descriptions of the violence don’t stop there. When talking about sexual violence they experienced in Chadian refugee camps:

Respondents identified the rapists as Chadian soldiers and civilians.

As I mentioned before, this is not just a minuscule number of isolated incidents: Of the 32 rapes reported, 17 happened in Darfur by the GOS or its proxies and 15 happened in Chad by Chadian soldiers or civilians. Furthermore, the report goes on to discuss solutions not just in terms of the GOS, the ICC and UNAMID, like SDC’s Fact Sheet, but in terms of the Chadian government and the UNHCR as well.

Specifically, the report said:

The women report that Chadian soldiers are among the assailants; they are allowed to come into the camp and evidently are insufficiently trained in their protection obligations. These violations are occurring under the presiding authority of the international NGOs and ultimately UNHCR.

That is, solutions to the epidemic of violence against women may not only include telling the GOS to increase protection or pressuring UNAMID. If SDC truly cares about Darfuri women, shouldn’t they be proposing all solutions that could possibly work, instead of just ones that help keep attention on the GOS? Of course they should, but they won’t because that muddies the picture. It makes it look like the situation may be more complicated than Arab = Bad, Black = Victim, and that’s not how they want to sell this conflict.

Even in their only blog entry about the report, SDC shies away from mentioning how the report portrays the perpetrators and what solutions it proposes. The author of the blog post just says:

…the saddest part for me personally, [is] the profound sense that no one seems to care.

Really? That’s interesting, ‘cause for me, the saddest part would be that my own organization’s Violence Against Women campaign is ignoring a whole group of offenders when they discuss rape in Darfur, essentially letting them off the hook and proposing solutions that would only hold half of the perpetrators accountable, but that’s just me.

Now I say that I find this aspect of SDC’s Violence Against Women campaign “most egregious.” Why? Because one could conceivably blame many of the campaign’s other omissions/sins/oversights on ignorance. For example, portraying women as helpless could be due to a gross misunderstanding of women’s issues or intellectual laziness. That doesn’t make it okay, but it does make it not evil.

Willfully ignoring gender based violence committed by certain perpetrators, however, is not ignorant. Purposefully reporting some facts and not others isn’t stupid, it’s political, and it indicates that there may exist a well-oiled political machine beneath the glossy veneer of this seemingly progressive human rights organization.

Moreover, isn’t the politicization of something as horrific as rape especially disgusting on a moral level? Essentially, they’re telling Darfuri women “We think it’s awful if you’re raped, as long as you aren’t raped by one of the ‘good guys.’” Personally, I feel like this is one of the lowest, most cynical, insulting and disgusting things that the movement does. Apparently, according to some in the movement, rape isn’t a crime that should be punished no matter who the perpetrator is, but merely another political tool in their arsenal. I understand trying to present data in a way that promotes your cause, but is nothing sacred? We’re not talking about exaggerating the number of postcards you collected or cutting the tags off of hats to hide their country of origin, we’re talking about one of the most heinous crimes imaginable being selectively ignored by an organization that claims to have the best interests of all Darfuris in mind. These women aren’t just the liberal darlings du jour – and as liberal darlings go, you couldn’t ask for better: black, undernourished, glamorously poverty stricken, desert-dwelling, shoeless – whose suffering you can cynically manipulate for your own political ends, but real people who deserve real justice regardless of who is harming them. Is there anything more detestable than this? I’ve heard of knowing the right people, but I’ve never heard of getting raped by the right people. I don’t know how they sleep at night, but hopefully the highly publicized Nowhere to Turn report will force SDC to re-examine its woefully mismanaged Violence Against Women campaign.

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