By Bethany Morley / GICJ
Over the past year, there has been a notable deterioration of the humanitarian situation in Sudan, resulting in economic and political instability, widespread violence, and a regression in women’s rights across the country.
Continuous violations of women’s rights have been witnessed in recent years. One of the most harrowing is the recent case of a 20-year-old Sudanese woman, who is not being named at the request of the family, who in June 2022 was found guilty of adultery and sentenced to death by stoning in Kosti, Sudan. The young woman, who separated from her husband in 2020, was accused of adultery a year later and in June 2022 found guilty. At the time of her arrest, she was unaware of the charges and was denied legal representation during interrogation. The woman is appealing the sentence; but, we are yet to hear an outcome from the Sudanese authorities. This is the first recorded case of stoning in Sudan in a decade, however, it should not be seen as an isolated incident. Rather, the incident fits into a broader pattern of discriminatory social, political, economic, and legal practices in Sudan that perpetuate violence against women and girls.
Since its independence in 1956, Sudan has been marked by protracted conflict, violence, and insecurity. Resultingly, women and girls in Sudan have been subject to systematic forms of violence for decades. However, the recent regression in human rights and instances of violence against women has been characterised by the events on the 25th of October 2021 when a military coup took place in Sudan to restore a civilian-led democracy. The coup displayed a lack of agreement between political forces and parties. According to reports of the Secretary-General published in September 2022 (S/2022/667), though most of the civilian-led protests were peaceful, an excessive amount of force was used by Sudanese authorities including water cannons, tear gas, and live ammunition. In situations of heightened conflict, women are disproportionately targeted by violence. Following the 2021 coup, the human rights situation in Sudan continued to rapidly deteriorate. Elevated levels of stress and trauma following the coup continues to affect Sudanese Women. The report noted how “humanitarian needs have grown exponentially in Sudan because of conflict”  with a concerning increase in violence specifically targeted at young women across the country.
The events from the 25th of October 21 exemplify the recent deterioration of women's rights, with the political crisis creating an environment where the government was able to draw back gains made in the realm of women's rights. The case of the 20-year-old Sudanese woman, and the current human rights situation in Sudan, needs to be seen within pre-existing patterns of oppression and subordination
Gender-based violence (GBV) covers a range of violence, primarily against women (but not exclusively), including domestic violence, sexual violence, psychological violence, forced marriage, economic violence, and Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) amongst other forms.
Statistics and qualitative and quantitative data on gender-based violence in Sudan are lacking. It is extremely underreported and very rarely is it discussed openly. In a 2020 report by the United Nations Population Fund (UNPF), it was noted that many forms of GBV, such as FGM and marital rape, have become normalised. Due to this, it is difficult to collect data on such cases of normalised violence.
The most prominent forms of violence reported in Sudan were domestic violence, reported to be experienced by 34% of the 40.8M population, child marriage, and sexual violence, all of which are extremely prevalent.
Structural Violence in Sudan
Structural violence is a multifaceted phenomenon that influences discriminatory norms, adverse stereotypes, and biases that permeate Sudan’s social and economic institutions. It is through structural forms of violence that women and girls are marginalised in ways that deny them opportunities, legitimise violence, and subsequently lower their quality of life and standard of living.
Geneva, 20th June 2022. UN Special Rapporteur on the right to health, Tlaleng Mofokeng, reported that “Interpersonal and societal/structural violence is often rooted in discrimination and situations of vulnerability” . To address these forms of violence, attention must be paid to how intersectionality and multiple forms of discrimination are compounded, including but not limited to racism, xenophobia, classism, ableism, patriarchy and binary approaches to gender.
Unequal social structures and social constructs perpetuate the continuation of women’s subordination which leads to a wider pattern of causation whereby structural inequalities give rise to violence against women. A gendered analysis of Sudan’s societal norms and traditional gender roles displays the binary understanding of gender, whereby men are typically seen as the dominant sex.
A study on the traditional and changing role of gender and women in peacebuilding and South Sudan, conducted by the United Nations Development Programme in January 2021, hypothesised that “there are complex systems of values, individual beliefs, social expectations, reinforcements, and punishments in South Sudan that support violent practices” . The report found that there is strong pressure for men to align with the masculine behaviours expected by society. Concurrently, it showed that women have very little power in the family and in wider aspects of society and decision-making. Due to this, the women’s movement in Sudan is extremely restricted. A report from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) 2020 found that women and girls need to seek permission from the head of the household when they want to leave the house . Subsequently, this restricts their access to independence, particularly for those who are widowers or divorcees.
This difference between the perception of a man and women emanates from the binary understanding of gender, where men are regarded as the strong leaders of the household (‘breadwinners’) who thrive in the public sphere, whereas women are perceived as mothers, wives and homemakers who stay in the private sphere, and are often perceived as weak victims.
Tlaleng Mofokeng noted that this binary conceptualisation of gender is the root cause of gender-based forms of violence . The perpetuation of this binary conception and the societal norms means twofold; men feel as though they need to enact masculine ideologies, resulting in exhibiting dominance over women which often takes the form of violence, and women’s voices are silenced, resulting in increased and unreported violence, particularly sexual gender-based and domestic violence . The prevalence of violence in the home, such as domestic violence, degradation, and subordination, are forms of microaggressions against women that legitimise the use of violence on a broader scale. In Sudan domestic violence is normalised
Though, theoretically, women can press charges against their abusers for domestic violence, it is difficult to bring these cases to court due to the factors in the social, economic and justice systems. Furthermore, it is discouraged for women to press charges, rather “women who are subjected to domestic violence are generally encouraged to seek reconciliation because violence against women is largely viewed as a private matter which should be resolved within the family” (see A/HRC/32/42/Add.1). This displaysthe differing perceptions of the value and importance of different genders in Sudan. Women being encouraged to reconcile after experiencing domestic violence not only de-values their experience, but it shows the stark contrast in experiences from the case of the 20-year-old Sudanese woman who was sentenced to be stoned due to adultery and a man who is violent towards his wife. Subjectively, performing violent acts on your partner is more of a crime than being accused of adultery. Yet, due to structural violence, women are systematically placed lower in society in Sudan, thus resulting in a harsher punishment for a lesser crime.
Further, structural forms of violence within Sudan manifest in traditional gender norms that perpetuate forms of violence. Similar to the role in the home, women and girls are expected to marry at a young age. A study by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in 2020 found that in areas of South Sudan, 52% of all girls are married before 18 years of age - depriving them of their basic rights and for some, even their lives . Further, this tradition reflects yet another societal norm that puts women and girls in a position of subordination and marginalisation. Many of the young girls are forcibly married off by their families for a dowry. Due to the dowry, forced marriage of children is often justified for economic reasons; forcing the child to marry improves the financial situation of the family. This is similarly a micro-aggression towards women and girls. It is so deeply entrenched in Sudanese culture, it is thought of as a conventional practice in Sudan for children to get married.
However, this is showing how the value of women and young girls is intrinsically linked to the monetary value their family received and their ability to be a ‘good wife’ who bares children from a young age. Child marriage is a practice that is deeply rooted in gender inequality; the subordination of women and girls and harmful societal norms.
The patriarchal societal norms in Sudan mean that women live in a constant state of insecurity. When societies are bound to traditional gender roles and institutional practices such as child marriage, it reinforces cycles of discrimination. Similarly, when violence starts in the home, it legitimises and reinforces its use on a broader scale.
Economic empowerment is an essential component of violence prevention. Therefore, women and girls experience violence due to structural inequalities that deny them economic empowerment. Economic violence is a tangible result of structural violence within Sudan, manifested due to the scarcity of a woman's access to resources as they are often controlled by men. It is usually the men who work and the women who stay within the home, and when women do the work it is reported that the income is taken away and controlled by the husband .
Further, in Sudan, it is common for girls to be taken out of school when they reach puberty . This is tightly linked to the tradition of child marriage and is a result of unequal power relations between men and women. This creates a cycle of subordination; when girls are taken out of school it removes their potential to advance in education or to obtain a career so they can make money and remove themselves from violent relationships. Further, this impinges their access to justice. As previously mentioned, when women experience domestic violence, they can, theoretically, press charges against their abusers for this harm. However, this is extremely difficult for women due to their lack of economic independence and access to the justice system. They often don’t have the money needed to press charges. In the case of the 20-year-old Sudanese woman who was sentenced to be stoned, she ‘theoretically’ could fight against her treatment i.e., being unaware of the charges at the time of her arrest and beingdenied legal representation during interrogation. However, this is made extremely hard due to women’s lack of economic independence withinSudan.
Human Rights Law
Sudan’s criminal legislation is in violation of international law which guarantees non-discrimination based on gender. This means that cycles of violence in Sudan are being perpetuated due to women’s lack of access to justice and the country's lack of appropriate mechanisms and institutions to address violence against women.
The Sudanese government adopted the National Strategy of Eliminating Violence against Women 2015-2032. The strategy was introduced with the intention of emphasising a ‘zero-tolerance policy’ against all forms of gender-based violence. A similar plan was introduced from 2012-2016 named the National Strategic Plan to Combat Violence against Women 2012-2016. However, there seems to be little advancement toward reducing, let alone eliminating, violence against women in Sudan. Though the country ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 2020, they are violating international law and not conforming to CEDAW.
The incident of the young woman, being sentenced under article 146 of Sudan’s Criminal Act of 1991, reflects the country's violations of domestic and international law and the itsfailure to commit to reforms after the ratification of CEDAW and the UN Convention Against Torture. This instance emphasises the urgent need for reform in Sudan’s legal system and for laws to be revised in line with international standards. By acknowledging and addressing the gendered structural inequalities that lead to patterns of violence against women, it is possible for Sudan to implement a transformative response to gendered inequalities.
To do so, there needs to be a shift in the structural conditions that give rise to acute levels of violence against women.
International actors’ positionality
On the 1st of February 2022, during the 40th session of the Universal Periodic Review, a process established in 2006 (Res. 60/251) which involves a review of the human rights records of all UN Member States, Sudan faced critical questions by many delegations. Concerns were raised regarding the dire humanitarian situation and harrowing reports of violence, killings, and widespread sexual and gender-based violence.
Geneva International Centre for Justice (GICJ) continues to strongly denounce the use of the death penalty. As the case of the young Sudanese woman who was sentenced to be stoned shows, Sudan is in grave violation of international law and standards. We urge Sudan for an immediate revision of its laws to ensure they are in line with international standards.
Further, GICJ is concerned with structural inequalities in Sudan that give rise to and legitimise the use of acute levels of violence against women and girls. We urge Sudan and the international community to acknowledge the existence of these structural inequalities and put measures in place to ensure the equality of men and women.
GICJ is also concerned with the deterioration in women’s rights since the 2021 coup. We emphasise the need for special measures to be implemented to ensure violence against women does not rise in instances of political unrest.
Accountability must be provided for victims of human rights abuses that are in grave violation of international law. We urge the international community to put pressure on the Sudanese authorities to stop this brutal murder and call for the young women’s release.
Sudan, Women, Girls, Women's rights, Economic Empowerment, Human Rights, Geneva, Justice, Geneva4Justice, GICJ, Geneva International Centre for Justice
 https://evaw-global-database.unwomen.org/ /media/files/UN%20womeview/country%20repAfrica/suSrn/sr%20sud? Vs.pdf?vs=1155
Image source 1: (Flickr) South Sudan: In the Shadow of War | Embroiled first in a war… | Flickr
Image source 2 (Flickr) SUDÁN | SUDÁN | TOSCO DIAZ | Flickr