A quest for better protection: Sudanese women today

DuniaMekonnenTegegnAuthor: Dunia Mekonnen Tegegn
Human Rights Lawyer and Gender equality advocate

Violence against Women and Girls (VAWG) is regarded as a prevalent and critical hindering factor for human development and peace-building in Sudan. Prior to the revolution, Sudanese women used to face a daily risk of being arbitrarily arrested in public or private places for “indecent or immoral behavior or dress.” Public Order Police Officers in Sudan had the power to decide what is decent and what is not. In most cases women are arrested for wearing trousers or knee length skirts.[1]  Though in 2019, the transitional Sudanese government rescinded the public order laws that governed women’s presence in public spaces, resulting in arbitrary arrests and ill-treatment, Sudan still needs to change other aspects of the public order regime that has a discriminatory effect on women.

Sudan is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Though the Sudanese government approved the ratification of CEDAW and the African Protocol on Women’s Rights following years of demands from Sudanese women, the ratification of CEDAW came with reservations on the articles number 2, 16 and 1/29, which is a clear violation of the rule that prevents reservations that defeat the essential elements and goals of human rights covenants.

In October 2020, the Sudanese justice ministry announced the formation of a committee to reform the Muslims personal law. Sudanese women and human rights groups also called for reform of the Sharia based law, which legalises child marriage, guardianship of men over women among other women rights violations. The justice ministry decision gave the committee one month to present the new law, despite this there has been no much progress from this committee. Political commitment in this area is also low. A recent quote from new finance minister, Jebril Ibrahim, while speaking to some traditional Islamic leaders read: “we will not refrain from supporting the Islamic laws in Sudan. You know they are making new Muslim Personal Law that complies with demands of foreigners, and we will not allow that to happen”. This is a very unfortunate statement coming from a government official after the fall of the radical Islamic regime in Sudan two years ago.[2]

In recent developments Sudanese women rights activists faced vicious defamation and attacks from Islamic fundamentalists on social media and on streets. Women were attacked for their views. The country witnessed rising incidents of violence against women at homes, on streets and in conflict areas. The attacks included a social media campaign that called men to start public lashing of women who are not wearing Hijab on streets. Unfortunately, the campaign got support from the head of police who was then removed after public protest by women groups.[3]


The continuous tribal and militia violence in several regions in Darfur and Kordofan has led to displacement of hundreds of women, death and sexual abuse of dozens of women and girls. The lack of protection of women, especially in conflict areas such as Darfur is a warning sign of the fragile peace agreement and the need for commitment to the provisions related to protection of civilians. On April 28th, 2020 a woman was killed in Beleil town in South Darfur during a violent crackdown on a peaceful sit-in demanding security in the town. On May 5th, Howyda Hasan was killed in a violent attack on a peaceful protest in Western Kordofan. Sudanese women groups demanded the government to take an urgent step to approve the proposed Violence Against Women Act, but the government’s approval was delayed for months without any known reasons. This comes in the shadows of the complete neglect of women demands for comprehensive participation in the transitional government in accordance with the transitional constitution. The current cabinet in Sudan has less than 15 percent of women participation, while the constitutional document grants women at least 40 percent of all government positions.[4]

The government of Sudan also stands still in the process of justice for sexual violence committed against women during reign of the former regime. The issue of sexual violence in conflict areas has not been addressed properly in the peace agreements and there is no clear evidence of any investigations or legal actions to be taken on this issue. The ICC case concerning the situation in Darfur has charges including mass rape, but steps taken so far are slow to facilitate the court process to reach for the victims, including the current case before the court of Kushayb. The sexual violence committed during the revolution against women protesters; especially on the 3rd of June 2019 sit in crackdown has not been part of the focus of the formed investigation committee. [5]According to figures of UN Women, 34.2% of Sudanese women aged 20–24 years old were married or in a union before age 18.[6] Though in 2015, the state introduced a national strategy to end child marriage, children still get married at the age of 15 or 16.[7] The legal age of marriage was 10 years for girls and 15 years or puberty for boys.[8] As long as children reach the age of puberty, it is normal to marry them off.  What matters for most people in the community is that people perceive them as women and not as girls.

UN Women highlights the adolescent birth rate for Sudan as 86.8 per 1,000 women aged 15-19 as of 2013, up from 64.9 per 1,000 in 2007. In Sudan, the policy environment for addressing violence against women is weak due to sensitivities on data collection, International Criminal Court (ICC) indictments against key government officials alleging violations of human rights including violence against women and stigma associated with violence against women.[9]

In practice a mixture of laws apply in the country. National laws concerning personal and family matters of Muslims adopted during the Bashir administration remain largely in effect and are based on a sharia system of jurisprudence. The existing criminal code states the law, including at the state and local levels, shall be based on sharia sources and include hudood, qisas, and diyah principles (regarding punishment, restitution, and compensation for specific serious crimes). The criminal code takes into consideration multiple sharia schools of jurisprudence (madhahib). [10] Northern Sudan still applies predominantly sharia law.

In the Muslim community both tradition and religion play a significant role and impact their day to day life. Though in July 2020, the civilian-led transitional government (CLTG) repealed a provision of law under which individuals could be arrested for indecent dress and other offenses deemed injurious to honor, reputation, and public morality, in practice the community values continue to exclude women, particularly in the north.

There are separate family courts for Muslims and non-Muslims to address personal status issues such as marriage, divorce, and child custody, according to their religion. By law, in custody dispute cases where one parent is Muslim and the other is Christian, courts grant custody to the Muslim parent if there is any concern that the non-Muslim parent would raise the child in a religion other than Islam. According to Islamic personal status laws, Christians (including children) may not inherit assets from a Muslim. Children of mixed (Muslim-Christian) marriages are considered Muslim and may inherit.


Honor killings and persecutions are prevalent. The notion of honor (sharaf) is central to Sudanese culture. People’s awareness of their personal honor tends to guide behavior and interactions in almost all circumstances. Personal honor is deeply intertwined with family reputation in Sudan. Traditionally, one’s behavior would affect the honor or reputation of the entire clan. This is still the case for some tribes in rural areas, while in urban areas it has changed to be reflective of the family alone. There are many factors that can determine whether one is perceived to have honor. One’s honor is deeply linked to an individual’s personal demeanor, treatment of others, integrity and modesty – specifically, the sexual modesty of one’s female family members. The Public Order Law prohibits some offences of honor, reputation and public morality such as the co-mingling of unmarried men and women, and indecent” dress.[11]  In some conservative communities, the unproven suspicion of a woman’s infidelity can cause enough disgrace to ruin her family’s reputation. If a woman is perceived to be promiscuous, her family name (sumaat ahalak) is put to shame (aar). [12]

Public disgrace can have extreme consequences. It can cause social exclusion and have very serious effects on people’s future opportunities and circumstances. Therefore, the public perception of a family’s honor can be more important than their social or monetary position in Sudan. There is often a strong cultural pressure on individuals to protect their reputation. In some serious cases, a family may feel obliged to shun the member of the household that brought shame upon them in order to clear their family name. Ultimately, much behavior may be motivated by a fear of shame (aar) or guilt. [13]

To effectively address perpetual violence against women in Sudan, the writer proposes the following actions;

  1. Harmonisation of laws in accordance with international and regional human rights


The government of Sudan must:


  • Remove reservations entered on article number 2, 16 and 1/29, which is a clear violation of the rule that prevents reservations that are considered part of the essential elements of CEDAW.
  • Expedite the reform process of Muslim Personal laws and Sharia based laws that legalise child marriage, guardianship of men over women among others.
  • Expedite the adoption and enforcement of the proposed Violence against Women Act.
  1. Advocacy and awareness raising efforts
  • Raise awareness on gender equality and promote women’s rights to freedom of expression
  • Raise awareness on the impacts of harmful traditional practices on women and girls.
  1. Enforcement of existing laws to better protect women and girls from Violence
  • Expedite investigation and prosecution of sexual violence cases that occurred in the past.

[1] Amnesty International, Sudan Human Rights < www.amnestyusa.org/countries/sudan/> accessed 15 June, 2021.

[2]Universal Rights Group, Human rights in Sudan: the new test case for the Human Rights Council [27Oct2020] <www.universal-rights.org/uncategorized/human-rights-in-sudan-the-new-test-case-for-the-human-rights-council> accessed on 9 June 2021.

[3]Universal Rights Group, Human rights in Sudan: the new test case for the Human Rights Council [27Oct2020] < www.universal-rights.org/uncategorized/human-rights-in-sudan-the-new-test-case-for-the-human-rights-council> accessed on 9 June 2021.

[4] Open Democracy free thinking for the world, In Sudan, women are still facing the deadly threat of the military, [5 October 2020] < www.opendemocracy.net/en/north-africa-west-asia/sudan-women-are-still-facing-deadly-threat-military > accessed on 8 June 2021.

[5]Open Democracy free thinking for the world, In Sudan, women are still facing the deadly threat of the military, [5 October 2020] < http://www.opendemocracy.net/en/north-africa-west-asia/sudan-women-are-still-facing-deadly-threat-military > accessed on 8 June 2021.

[6] UN Women, Sudan Country Information [27Oct2020] < www africa.unwomen.org/en/where-we-are/eastern-and-southern-africa/sudan> accessed on 8 June 2021.

[7] United Nations Human Rights Council, Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review, National report Sudan submitted in accordance with paragraph 5 of the annex to Human Rights Council resolution 16/21, [13May2016]    < www. documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/G16/025/86/PDF/G1602586.pdf?OpenElement> accessed on 15 June 2021.

[8] US Department of States, 2019 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Sudan < www.state.gov/reports/2019-country-reports-on-human-rights-practices/sudan/ > accessed on 15 June 2021.

[9] UN Women, Sudan Country Information [27Oct2020] <www africa.unwomen.org/en/where-we-are/eastern-and-southern-africa/sudan> accessed on 8 June 2021.

[10] United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, Annual Report 2021[April 2021], <www.justice.gov/eoir/page/file/1389061/download> accessed on 10 June 2021.

[11]Sudan Chapter – 2015 Annual Report, TOLERANCE PROJECT <https://tolerance.tavaana.org/en/content/sudan&gt; accessed on 25 October 25, 2021.

[12] Cultural ATLAS, North Sudanese Culture, <www.culturalatlas.sbs.com.au/north-sudanese-culture/north-sudanese-culture-core-concepts#north-sudanese-culture-core-concepts> accessed on 10 June 2021.

[13] Id.

About the Author:

Dunia Mekonnen Tegegn is a human rights lawyer who has been working with the American Bar Association’s Center for Human Rights where she coordinated the Center’s work on Ethiopia through close collaboration with Ethiopia’s Democracy and Human Rights CSOs to ensure human rights are prioritised and protected within the criminal justice system.  She has previously worked with Amnesty International USA as an Almami Cyllah Fellow, the UN OHCHR East Africa Regional Office, the United Nations Agency for Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment and the United Nations Children’s Fund. Dunia also taught law at Haramaya University Law School other universities in Ethiopia. In 2016, she was named as the first Ethiopian/African woman to receive a National Security LLM with distinction from Georgetown University’s Women’s Law and Public Policy Program.  She holds a Bachelor of Laws degree from Bahir dar University, Ethiopia and a Master’s degree in Human Rights from Addis Ababa University. Dunia also co-manages an NGO called EmpowergirlsNow that focuses on raising awareness on FGM in Sub-Saharan Africa.

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