Following decades of oppression, women in Sudan have taken a lead in the overthrow of President Omar al-Bashir in April 2019. Spearheading dissent at great personal risk, they have much to gain by regime change — under Bashir’s rule, women and girls bore the brunt of his attacks on civil liberties, with a myriad of laws and practices denying them even the most basic freedoms.
As a new chapter in Sudan’s history begins, women are rightly demanding a central role in shaping the country’s future, including an equal share of seats in any civilian transitional government.
For years, women have endured many restrictions under Sudan’s public order acts, introduced by Bashir in 1996 as a strict moral code applied arbitrarily to oppress women, constrain their involvement in public life, and criminalize what should be matters of personal choice.
Public Order police have had the authority to arrest women and girls for a range of offenses such as “indecent or immoral behavior or dress” and “causing an annoyance to public feelings.” Wearing trousers or being with a man who is not a family member could be punished by imprisonment, a fine, and flogging.
The legislation includes minimal guidance on implementation, so what constitutes a violation and how severely to treat it has been left to the interpretation and personal biases of individual police officers and court officials.
In 2018, the case of teenager Noura Hussein drew world attention to the dire treatment of women in Sudan, when an Islamic court sentenced her to hang for the murder of her cousin.
Noura’s family had forced her to marry him and when she refused to consummate the union, his two brothers and another cousin held her down while he raped her. When he returned the following day, Noura fatally wounded him with a knife as she defended herself against another assault.
Noura’s case made international headlines, with activists in Sudan and Sudanese diaspora leading calls for her death sentence to be overturned. The hashtag #JusticeforNoura trended on social media and a Change.org petition calling for her release gained over 1.7 million signatures.
Following a legal appeal that argued Noura was a victim of rape, forced and child marriage, her death sentence was quashed in May 2018 and replaced with a five-year prison sentence and restitution payment. Campaigning continues to call for her to be granted unconditional freedom.
Girls Not Brides report that 34% of girls in Sudan are married before the age of 18, and 12% are wed before their 15th birthday. Almost 40% of 15 to 19-year-old girls currently married have a husband at least ten years older.
Child marriage is permitted under Sudan’s Personal Status Law, which gives a father the explicit right to marry a daughter from the age of ten. It is rare for girls to have control over the choice of a husband, and Sudanese law specifies that women and girls — no matter how old they are — are only allowed to marry with the consent of a male guardian.
Sudan also has one of the highest rates of female genital mutilation in the world, with the majority being subjected to the severest form, infibulation, involving the removal of all external genitalia and the stitching together of the two sides of the vulva.
Protests in Sudan ignited in December 2018 in response to spiraling living costs and soon grew into wider calls for sweeping economic and social reform. Many on the streets were professionals — including doctors, lawyers, teachers and journalists — determined to end 30 years of repression. Women have been at the forefront, and the use of social media has played a pivotal role in gaining national and international support.
Tear gas, rubber bullets and live fire were used by the police and army to disperse crowds. Dozens were killed, many more injured, and thousands arrested, with reports of torture widespread.
Hundreds of women, including numerous women’s rights activists, were specifically targeted. International women’s rights organisation Equality Now was informed by contacts on the ground of numerous cases of sexual harassment and rape by law enforcement personnel.
On April 6, masses from across the country joined a huge rally outside the army headquarters in the capital city Khartoum and refused to leave until the president resigned.
Bashir’s former military allies deposed him in a coup on April 11 and immediately announced the introduction of the Transitional Military Council (TMC) to run the country for two years followed by elections.
Concerned the military has ousted one unpopular leader simply to replace him with another from the same regime, protesters have remained on the streets to demand the military hand over power to an independent civilian-led transitional government.
The military has now agreed to the formation of a joint civilian-military council but tensions are again mounting. Protest leaders are unhappy about the military’s announcement that the council will comprise of seven military representatives and three civilians, and be led by current TMC ruler General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan.
Describing the military council as “a copycat of the toppled regime”, activists have vowed to continue their sit-in until a civilian authority is installed, and demonstration leaders have called for a mass public rally on May 2.
Under Bashir’s rule, women and girls were denied even the most basic freedoms. The system needs immediate reform to ensure civil rights to all citizens, regardless of gender.
Laws against sexual violence and child marriage must be enforced, and public order laws that harm and discriminate against women and girls should be abolished.
Add your name to Equality Now’s letter to Sudan’s transitional government
- Respect and fulfill Sudan’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights to which it is a party and which calls for civil and political freedom of its citizens.
- Ensure that the rights of women and girls are at the heart of the new administration in response to the many women and girls who demonstrated for change at great cost to themselves in some cases paying the ultimate price.
- Immediately release women’s rights activists who have been detained.
- Take action against those who have committed sexual assault against women during this period of protests.
About Equality Now:
Equality Now is an international human rights organization that works to protect and promote the rights of women and girls around the world by combining grassroots activism with international, regional and national legal advocacy.
Their international network of lawyers, activists, and supporters achieve legal and systemic change by holding governments responsible for enacting and enforcing laws and policies that end legal inequality, sexual trafficking, sexual violence, and harmful practices such as female genital mutilation and child marriage.