The Sudanese government and rebel groups in the war-ravaged Darfur region should immediately take measures to end the sexual violence endemic to the conflict, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said.
"The risk of sexual violence is a fact of everyday life for many women and girls in Darfur," HRW said in a 7 April report, Five Years On - No Justice for Sexual Violence in Darfur. "It is a particularly disturbing feature of the ongoing armed conflict, a consequence of abusive state armed forces and non-state armed groups, and of the breakdown of law and order."
Five years into the Darfur conflict, HRW said, sexual violence had continued both during attacks on civilians and in periods of relative calm, with women and girls living in camps for the displaced, towns and rural areas remaining "extremely vulnerable" to sexual violence.
"In the mostly Muslim province of Darfur, sexual violence is an extremely sensitive topic," HRW said. "Women and girls often do not admit to being sexually abused because they fear social stigmatisation and do not trust the authorities to take action. Many authorities refuse to acknowledge the problem and some accuse victims of lying to international aid workers to exaggerate their plight for political ends."
Violence erupted in Darfur in 2003, with the government and government-backed Janjaweed militia unleashing a campaign against ethnic groups perceived to be associated with two main rebel groups: the Sudan Liberation Army/Movement (SLA/M) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM). Since then, civilians have borne the brunt of the violence, with aid agencies estimating at that at least 200,000 people have been killed and millions displaced.
"It is imperative the Sudanese government and UNAMID [United Nations-African Union mission], give high priority to meeting the challenges associated with addressing sexual violence," HRW said. "The government should demonstrate its resolve to address these serious human rights violations by state security forces and government-backed militias through concrete actions addressing the causes of sexual violence."
It urged the government to show its commitment to combating sexual violence by ending all attacks on civilians, including women and children, by government forces and state-backed militia; issuing a presidential decree to the armed forces and government-sponsored militia that rape and other forms of sexual violence would be promptly investigated and prosecuted; and holding those responsible accountable.
"The government also needs to bolster the justice sector's capacity to respond to sexually violent crimes," HRW said. "It should ensure police and prosecutors are trained in victim-sensitive approaches to handling criminal investigations, and that properly trained female police investigators are deployed to police stations in Darfur, especially to internally displaced persons [IDP] camps."
HRW urged the Sudanese government to revise criminal laws on sexual violence to include attempted rape and to ensure that rape victims were not exposed to prosecution for adultery, "as is possible - and has happened in the past - under Sudanese law".
"[The government] should repeal immunity laws that provide members of the security forces effective immunity from prosecution in civilian courts for human rights violations, including acts of sexual violence," HRW said.
It demanded that rebel forces and groups in Darfur likewise stop attacking civilians, including women and children, and issue clear instructions to group members that rape and other forms of sexual violence would be fully investigated and prosecuted and perpetrators held accountable.
"Former rebels, to the extent that they administer justice in areas under their control, should also seek assistance to bolster the capability of police and prosecutors to bring perpetrators of sexual violence crimes to justice," HRW said.
It urged UNAMID to deploy to areas where civilians needed the most protection and to increase preventive "firewood patrols" to protect women and girls who go out of IDP camps in search of firewood.