A Closer Look at the Women of Sudan

An ecumenical delegation of five women from Africa, Europe and the United States visited camps and church communities in Khatoum and Medani Sudan, to hear the stories of the women who live in the war-torn nation often without husbands, shelter or food, June 29 to July 9.

“Twenty-one years of war have left deep scars on the psyche of this nation. The women we observed were hesitant to speak of the various forms of violence they have experienced and continue to endure,” the WCC noted in a press release.

Because of the war, many women have been widowed or separated from their husbands, left with the task of looking after their children and being the breadwinners of the family.

Faced with this task, many of the women resorted to selling alcohol, a crime punishable with imprisonment. The delegation met several of these women inmates at the Omduman prison near Khartoum.

The WCC recorded the experience in vivid detail:

“As we entered the prison, we were assailed with the smells, sights and sounds of prison life. 823 women inmates and 227 children are currently crammed together here, sleeping on the dirty floors in a zinc-roofed temporary building. Imprisoned for three to six months, the women have to pay a fine to be set free. If they can't pay, they will be detained even longer.”

According to one of the men working at the prison, “they are not bad women but poverty drives them to this.”

The delegation’s visit to Joborona Internally Displaced Persons camp was not much brighter.

“We saw miles and miles of broken-down houses, interspersed with makeshift huts made of cardboard boxes and plastic sheeting. The women living here shared with us their stories of desperation. Ironically, the word Joboronain Arabic literally means, "we have been forced". Many of the women have repeatedly been forced out, their homes demolished to make way for city planning and private housing colonies,” the WCC recorded.

An account of one woman who have been placed in the camp was, “I was working in the fields. When I came back home, my whole family was displaced and the village had been burned down."

Currently, there are some 4 million internally displaced people registered in Sudan; many have not been able to settle or return to their towns for over a decade.

The Sudan Council of Churches explained that the lack of training, unemployment and illiteracy are the main challenges faced by the women. Other hardships include poverty and sexual and domestic violence against women. To battle these challenges, church-sponsored and initiated prison ministry groups have been teaching the inmates how to sew and sell baby cloths for newborns.

Another challenge faced by women is the struggle against HIV/AIDS. Often, sexual assault and rape is used as a military weapon, infecting many innocent women with the deadly virus.

“AIDS is present here and we are so afraid of it - more than the war that has displaced us from the South," said a woman who was forced to move to Medani, a four-hour trip from Khartoum. "AIDS is now the greatest battle we have to fight."

Faced with these challenges, the women have found creative ways to find solutions.

According to the WCC, In the Haj Yousif Displaced People's Camp, called Nyaret, a group of women from different tribes and religions live as a community, organizing their daily life together. Most of them are widows and single mothers. The group managed to buy a small piece of land and to set up a shop to sell items for daily use.

"The collaboration of these women transcends the traditional limitations of gender, tribal or geographic origin. Women have to cooperate if they want to survive, and they have to take responsibility for themselves and their children," noted Kirsten Schwanke-Adiang, a German member of the WCC team. "In spite of all the tragedy of the ongoing situation in Sudan, the women themselves admit that the war has taught them cooperation beyond the traditional boundaries." Women are working together to build up the nation.

The Sudan Council of Churches and women’s organizations of local churches have initiated projects for economic self-sufficiency and peace, guiding and aiding these vulnerable women.

The delegation, organized by the World Council of Churches and the All Africa Conference of Churches, was a part of an ongoing series of solidarity visits to women in conflict situations around the world. The team of women, who returned to their respective countries, are now challenged with letting the voice of these women be known and bringing change through aid from the global ecumenical community of churches.