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In 2004, the UN called on the Sudanese government to respond to the widespread and systematic sexual assault occurring in Darfur. However, the government's tepid response has been undercut by it's own laws, virtually nonexistent law enforcement and a system of justice biased against the victims.

In 2004, the United Nations called on the Sudanese government to respond to the widespread and systematic sexual assault committed against the people of Darfur.

While a follow-up 2005 UN report acknowledges that the government has taken a few tentative steps toward addressing the crisis in Darfur, it also flatly states that the government is neither doing what it can nor should in response. So, the atrocities continue.

A large part of the government's failure to produce change and reduce the incidence of sexual assault comes from obstacles that the government has in place.

Obstacles from the Legal System

Some obstacles result directly from the structure of the Sundanese legal system.

  1. Khartoum has failed to live up to expectations in international law. Even though Sudan is a signatory to the Rome Statute, there a many other treaties dealing specifically with the protection of women and children that Sudan has not signed, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

  2. Sudanese statutes covering sexual assault lead to confusion. The crime of rape carries a punishment of 100 lashes and no more than 10 years in jail. The crimes of adultery and sodomy are capital offenses. If rape cannot be proved the perpetrator may be convicted of “gross indecency.” The criteria for evidence is different for each type of offense and courts sometimes confuse them.

  3. Rape victims may be prosecuted. In cases where a woman, her relatives or an NGO bring an accusation of rape—especially against soldiers or police—they may be prosecuted for spreading false information. When a woman who is raped gets pregnant, but does not prove that rape has occurred, she may be accused of adultery—a capital offense.

  4. Proving lack of consent is difficult. Sudanese law defines rape as sex without consent. However, in practice, lack of consent is very difficult to prove. There must be four witnesses to testify on the victim's behalf. If the woman was raped while she was alone, there is no one to confirm that she did not give consent.

  5. Problems with medical evidence. In Sudan, medical evidence is admitted only via the notorious Form 8. Form 8 provides only limited medical information and it can be issued only by police stations or approved hospitals and clinics. Form 8 is not a comprehensive medical report. Until criminal procedures were revised in 2004 a victim couldn't even receive treatment for the sexual assault until a Form 8 had been filed. Because Form 8 is so glaringly inadequate, sufficient medical evidence is often very difficult to obtain.

Failure to Investigate

Even good sexual assault laws (which Sudan does not have) do no good if no one investigates allegations.

  1. Police often refuse to investigate. The UN report contains a number of examples where victim complaints were simply ignored.

  2. The law contains no reasonable time frame for investigation. This allows police to delay for long periods of time (often several months). Without a medical exam within 72 hours, precious medical evidence is lost.

  3. Victims and relatives are subject to arrest and harassment. Perpetrators are often soldiers or policemen. Bringing a complaint against a policeman or other pro-Government groups risks retaliation. For example, in February 2005 two female minors (ages 12 and13) were raped by the members of the Janjawid. When the assaults were reported to the sheikh, he took the complaint to the police station. He was promptly arrested for spreading false information.

  4. Investigation is inadequate (if it happens at all). Even when investigations into sexual assault allegations are carried out, it is often not pursued far enough to create a sustainable case. If a doctor does not determine that a woman has been raped, the case is generally dropped. The police do not understand that it is the job of a court, and not a physician, to determine whether sexual assault has occurred.

Failure to Prosecute or Punish

Even with a thorough investigation, prosecution, punishment or compensation are not a sure bet.

  1. Agents of the state, soldiers and police officers are immune. Members of the military and police officers can be investigated or prosecuted only with permission from the executive bodies responsible for their conduct. Sometimes this immunity is used to simply dismiss an allegation. In other instances, defense attorneys use jurisdictional lines to delay cases for an extended period.

  2. Victims are generally unable to identify the perpetrator. “Identification parades,” where the victim is required to identify the perpetrator from among panel of suspects, are usually ineffective for identifying perpetrators. It is not surprising that perpetrators are not generally picked out of a line of suspects since perpetrators often wear masks or scarves to cover their identity and multiple perpetrators are often involved. Add to this the trauma that a woman and girl face by being forced to confront her attacker face to face, and the identification parade comes off not simply as ineffective, but as cruel.

Problems with Access to Courts and Gender Bias

Obstacles do not exist only with the law or law enforcement. The courts throw up a number of obstacles for victims seeking justice for sexual assault.

  1. Courts are not available in many areas. Additionally, travel to courts is often unsafe (traveling is one of the most common times for rape to occur).

  2. There is no rape support system. Support systems for rape victims are nearly nonexistent. Not only do women have a difficult time accessing courts, but they are just as unlikely to find the support they need to cope with the trauma.

  3. The Sudanese court system can be traumatizing in itself. Trials are conducted, decisions rendered and sentences are given without regard to any understanding of the trauma experienced by the rape victim. Because of this lack of understanding, women are callously drawn back through the trauma they have already experienced.

  4. Sudanese courts are biased against women. Compared to men, women have an unduly heavy burden of proof. The underlying assumption is that women are untrustworthy. So, an accusation of rape must be corroborated by four witnesses (who can often be intimidated into not showing up in court). This is not the case for victims of other types of crimes.

  5. Sudan does not meet minimal international standards for prosecuting sexual assault. The Rome Statue of the ICC (which Sudan signed) sets out minimal standards for prosecuting sexual assault crimes. Judges and prosecutors should have special training in dealing with these types of cases. The court should have a victim and witness unit. Basic standards of evidence are required. Sudan does not meet even the minimal criteria.

  6. Traditional or extra-legal procedures are used. Since confidence in the Sudanese legal system is so abysmal, it is no surprise when women and families turn to traditional courts for help. The UN Report recounts one incident where two women were raped and one of them was killed. The survivor identified the perpetrator and the incident was brought to the village council. Present at the council were police and members of the perpetrator's and victim's families. The council found the man guilty and ordered him to pay a fine. No other legal action occurred.

Bottom Line

In 2004, the UN called on the Sudanese government to respond to the widespread and systematic sexual assault occurring in Darfur. The government's response—if it can seriously be called a response—has been undercut by it's own laws, virtually nonexistent law enforcement and a system of justice biased against the victims.

Data and Methods:


Information collected by human rights officers of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). Four human rights officers from OHCHR were sent to Sudan in August 2004. By July 2005, there were 45 human rights officers deployed in four regional offices. Human rights officers also work closely with humanitarian organizations and the African Union Mission in Sudan.

Funding Source:

Not provided.

Full Text Availability:
Full text available at

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. 2005. Access to Justice for Victims of Sexual Violence. Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Geneva. July 29 2005.

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