Background Briefing

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No Protection: Rape and Sexual Violence Following Displacement

In addition to rape and sexual violence committed in the context of attacks on villages, many women and girls have been raped during or following displacement from their homes. These attacks have targeted women and girls traveling to displaced persons camps or to towns, leaving the relative protection of those locations to collect firewood, water or other items, and taking these goods to market to sell in exchange for necessary family items.

Women and girls are particularly at risk for rape once displaced because collecting firewood and fetching water are chores traditionally allocated to women. Most of the displaced communities living in the camps in Darfur are almost entirely dependent on humanitarian aid, and there are minimal employment opportunities in the camps and towns. Collecting firewood for cooking and fodder for livestock is essential, both for family use but also because selling these items is often the only way for a family to earn any income to supplement relief assistance and purchase items otherwise unavailable, such as clothes and household necessities that were previously looted.

Traveling to or from the market often puts women and girls at risk of rape. A sixteen-year-old girl who was raped while traveling from her village to Nyala, the capital of South Darfur, described the attack to Human Rights Watch:

[I was with] a group of girls traveling from our village to Nyala….I had a brother working in the market and I wanted to collect some goods from him. Some of us were traveling on donkeys and others were walking. Suddenly the Janjaweed attacked us; they took our money and our donkeys. The majority [of the girls] managed to escape; me, my cousin and my sister were captured. They took all our topes and veils, they left us only with our dresses. We were screaming. I was taken with my younger cousin to the wood; I don’t know where they took my sister. One of them forced me on the ground and all the time I was resisting them….all the time one of the Janjaweed kept his gun pointed at my head. They started raping me. I was bleeding heavily but could do nothing. It was so painful, but fear was even more than pain. Four of them raped me.18

In Darfur, women sometimes have no other choice but to risk assault by leaving the perimeters and relative safety of displaced camps and populated towns to visit the markets or collect firewood. This is largely because men may face the worse threat of being killed if they venture out. The risk of attack when leaving the camps is compounded by the fact that some areas around the camps have now been so deforested that women are compelled to venture even further away.19

Human Rights Watch has documented scores of cases of rape of women and girls while traveling along rural roads, some as recently as February and March 2005.20 Between October 2004 and mid-February 2005, Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) teams in West and South Darfur treated almost 500 women and girls who had been raped. An MSF report on the issue asserted that the number of cases treated in MSF clinics represented but a fraction of the total, given the chronic under-reporting of rape, and also noted that 82 percent of the rapes they treated occurred when women left the towns and displaced persons camps in search of firewood, water or grass for animal fodder.21  Almost a third of the women and girls who were victims of these attacks were raped by multiple perpetrators.22

Even once they arrived in Chad as refugees, women and girls continued to face the risk of rape and assault by civilians or militia members when collecting water, fuel or grass near the border.23 These cross-border attacks were one of the reasons that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees relocated thousands of refugees from the border to camps further inside Chad in 2004.24 Although the vast majority of the refugees who initially settled along the border have now been relocated, women and girls remain at risk of assault and rape when they venture from the camps in Chad. A twenty-three-year-old refugee woman told Human Rights Watch in February 2005:

I went with a group of women searching for firewood at the border, but I was alone when I was attacked. A man from Chad, not a soldier, caught me, beat me and raped me. Afterwards I became sick, with fever and dizziness. My arms and legs and belly swelled up and I was yellow. I went to the clinic, but I only get paracetamol and fluid. When my husband came back some months later and found that I was pregnant, he left me. Now I have two babies from this, but not enough milk or food. I am very sad.25

In Chad, there is generally far greater freedom of movement and more opportunities for work for both men and women. Some men have found work in trade in northern towns such as Tine or short-term employment working in the fields at harvest time, in the south. However, this latter type of labor is limited and seasonal, and furthermore is restricted by increasing tensions between the refugee and host communities over strained resources. Women refugees are able to earn income in markets or as domestic servants for Chadians in nearby villages. However this can put them at risk of abuse.

In interviews with Human Rights Watch, some Sudanese women and girls reported undergoing abuses while trying to collect firewood for sale or fuel. Some refugees living in the camps in Chad had been imprisoned by the Chadian authorities for trying to collect firewood outside the camps, only to be raped by Chadian inmates while in detention. Human Rights Watch documented ten cases of women and girls from Farchana refugee camp who were imprisoned in such circumstances in January 2005. One fifteen-year-old girl who had been imprisoned for three days with another girl and two women, said “We were locked in a small cell, all of us, with five men from Chad. We were hurt every day. Sometimes they forced us, one night five times. Our families had to pay money to get us out.”26

Aid workers interviewed by Human Rights Watch were unaware of both the detention of these girls and women, and the exposure to sexual violence and the rapes incurred as a result.27

In a number of camps in Chad and Darfur, women significantly outnumber men and are the de facto heads of their households. This puts even more pressure on women to find ways to earn extra income and support their families which in turn increases their exposure to sexual abuse and exploitation.28

Human Rights Watch found that in Chad, many of the estimated 18,000 unregistered refugees appeared to be women and children living on the camp outskirts, in the nearby wadis (dry river beds), or along the roads to the camps.  These unregistered refugee women and girls are at higher risk of sexual exploitation and violence precisely because they live outside camps, which provide a minimum of food and security. Many of them lack tents, literally living under trees and behind bushes and remain unregistered apparently because some are suspected by aid workers to be Chadians masquerading as refugees in order to access camp services. While there are Chadians who have entered the camps in search of services and assistance, of the thirty unregistered individuals interviewed by Human Rights Watch at one refugee camp, all were from Sudan.29

Even women and girls living within the displaced and refugee camps can risk sexual and gender-based violence. For example, a woman or girl who has been raped may be disowned by her family and then live alone with little access to services and protection. In one such case documented by Human Rights Watch, a sixteen-year-old Fur girl who had been displaced from her village in West Darfur in August 2003 was later raped by three men while collecting firewood outside of the town where she and her family had fled. Following the rape, her family members threw her out of her home and her fiancé broke off their engagement because she was “disgraced.” Forced to live alone, she was subjected to further violence, including rape, at the hands of local police who came to her dwelling at night.30 

Women and girls may also be coerced by male residents of the camp and others, such as Chadian gendarmes, to provide “sexual services” in exchange for their “protection.” These women and girls may also be seen as “easily accessible” by men. “It is not safe inside the camp. I have no husband. Many men have forced me to be their wife,” a twenty-six-year-old refugee woman told Human Rights Watch.31 These risks have been documented in many other refugee crises.32

[18] Human Rights Watch interview, displaced persons camp, South Darfur, February 2005.

[19] Human Rights Watch interviews, North Darfur, April 2005.

[20] Human Rights Watch interviews, South Darfur, February 2005. See also Human Rights Watch, Empty Promises and Targeting the Fur, unpublished accounts and confidential communications on file with Human Rights Watch.

[21] The Crushing Burden of Rape: Sexual Violence in Darfur, Médecins sans Frontières, March 8, 2005, p. 4.

[22] Ibid, p. 3.

[23] Human Rights Watch, Empty Promises, and unpublished research on file with Human Rights Watch.

[24] Human Rights Watch, Darfur in Flames, p. 40. See also UNHCR Briefing Notes: Chad, Ingushetia, Burundi, UNHCR, Geneva, February 20, 2004, at (retrieved April 11, 2005).

[25] Human Rights Watch interview, Farchana refugee camp, Chad, February 2005.  In this case, the symptoms the woman describes are consistent with Hepatitis B or C, sexually transmitted diseases.

[26] Human Rights Watch interview, Farchana refugee camp, Chad, February 2005. 

[27] International human rights law provides that men and women shall so far as possible be detained in separate institutions. In detention centers that receive both men and women, the whole of the premises allocated to women shall be entirely separate. Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (, adopted Aug. 30, 1955, by the First United Nations Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders, U.N. Doc. A/CONF/611, rule 8.

[28] Reasons for this demographic imbalance likely include conflict-related causes such as the higher mortality of men from violence in Darfur, their presence in the rebel movements, and the fact that some men and boys leave their families in the camps while they migrate with their livestock in search of better pasture and water resources. There was also a pre-war gender disparity in some areas of Darfur due to decades of labor migration to other parts of Sudan, Libya and other neighboring countries.

[29] Human Rights Watch interviews, Oure Cassoni refugee camp, Chad, February 15, 2005.

[30] The location and other details of this incident are withheld to protect the confidentiality and security of the victim. Information on file with Human Rights Watch.

[31] Human Rights Watch interview, Iridimi refugee camp, Chad, February 11, 2005.

[32] The Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children, If Not Now, When? Addressing Gender-Based Violence in Refugee, Internally Displaced and Post-Conflict Settings: A Global Overview. New York April 2002

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