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Beyond the violence itself: Fighting for women's rights in Sudan

Women taking part in a CARE workshop in South Darfur. Photo: Tessa Bolton/CARE

Women taking part in a CARE workshop in South Darfur. Photo: Tessa Bolton/CARE

“I have been working day and night, without rest, for over 15 years,” says Fatima, a villager living at the outskirts of Abujibiha, South Kordofan in Sudan.

In the traditional communities here and across the country, young girls are often forced to stop their education early and get married, work on farms, or take care of household activities.

“I was forced to leave school and get married when I was only 15 years old,” Fatima says. “It was a painful experience to get pregnant and give birth at early age.”

Now, Fatima’s typical day is long, exhausting, and unpaid.

“I have to get up from bed just before dawn,” she says. “I have a lot of work to do. I go directly to milking goats and prepare tea and coffee for my husband and kids, and then I rush to prepare breakfast and move early to the field to take care of the family farm.”

“I spend hours working in unbearable heat under direct sun, planting vegetables and sorghum, and watering fruit trees. In the afternoon I come back to prepare lunch, clean the house and wash clothes.”

“My day is so long, and, although I do most of the work in our family farm, sadly I gain no money for myself.”

Beyond the violence itself

In July of 2021, CARE, WFP, and FAO conducted a joint rapid gender analysis on the impact of COVID-19 on gender equality and food security in the Arab Region, with a focus on Sudan.

The results showed that Fatima’s story is typical.

Women in Abujibiha, South Kordofan irrigate their vegetables garden. Photo: CARE Sudan

Across the country, gender norms and dynamics significantly impact women’s social, economic, and political participation, as well as access to resources and services.

A follow-up CARE gender analysis in 2023 showed the lack of available job opportunities for women, their disproportionate responsibility over the household, which doubles their burdens, lack of ownership, and exposure to gender-based violence all remain core challenges.

According to the study, when many Sudanese women ask for a divorce, their husbands beat them, and their families push them to stay and simply endure the hardships.

“Women experience several challenges related to GBV – beyond the act of violence itself,” the researchers wrote. “GBV is so prevalent due to unequal laws the enable it, patriarchal gender norms, economic hardship, insecurity and conflict, and the absence of law enforcement. It is driven internally by the family by the deep need to protect family honor.”

Working for basic rights

Given the country’s limited financial resources — Sudan has a population of 47 million people and a GDP of $51 billion, according to the World Bank — there is a clear and continued tension around household priorities and decision-making. Women typically expressed responsibility for managing the burden of the overall welfare of the family, regardless of whether they controlled the financial resources or not.

“For years, I had seen women facing gender-based violence and that women were deprived from their basic rights within my community,” says Hawa, a 26-year-old in Abujibiha.”But I felt my hands were tied, and I was not sure what to do to help them.”

Following the community consultation sessions, CARE started organize trainings on gender-based violence in May 2023.

How men and boys can help

The aim of the trainings was, first, to ensure that the project did not exacerbate GBV issues, and then to begin addressing some of the issues raised in the rapid gender analysis.

They also wanted to engage men and boys to shift their mindsets toward supporting women.

“Women’s and girls’ empowerment — including creating more space for them to make decisions — is essential to expand economic growth, promote social development, and combat GBV,” says Takunda Ruvaro, CARE International’s Livelihoods and Markets Advisor in Sudan.

“However, that in itself is not enough, therefore CARE International is also conducting male engagement sessions to shift the mindsets of men and boys in South Kordofan. We cannot combat GBV unless we include men and boys in these discussions.”

Women’s groups and community leaders discuss social and economic roles. Photo: CARE Sudan

In traditional agricultural systems such as in South Kordofan, both men and women (and to some degree children) usually participate in land clearance and preparation, planting, weeding, harvesting, and transporting crops. However, women generally carry out more agricultural work than men, particularly planting, weeding, and application of pesticides.

Despite the critical roles women play in all production systems, control over cash and purchasing decisions, whether for production-related goods, consumer goods, or other family requirements, remains primarily in the hands of men.

The CARE trainings focused on women’s rights to access education, work, health services, and participation in political space in their country.

Standing up for dreams

“I was feeling very sad and hopeless as I was not able to help my classmates who were forced to stop education at early age, getting into arranged marriages and then facing the great health challenges during pregnancy and delivery at an early age,” says Zainab, a women rights advocate in Abujibiha.

“During the heated discussions, women noted that they work in agriculture as part of the family business, but sadly they gain nothing for themselves.”

Women working the fields in the Farialhabeel village of East Darfur. Photo: Kelly Muthusi/CARE

“The GBV and women empowerment training organized by CARE Sudan was an eye-opener for me and other women in my community,” says Hawa. “After the training, I started to advise women and girls around me on their rights and how GBV would affect their physical and mental health.”

“As a group of women rights advocates, we started to advocate with our community leaders to encourage them recognize women’s social, economic and political roles,” Zainab says. “We also established a link with the official Child and Family Protection Unit in Abujibiha, and we referred to them the GBV cases that we were not able to solve by ourselves.”

“Thankfully, now I feel confident to advocate within my community for women’s rights, the need to stop GBV, and women’s economic empowerment. I strongly encourage women and girls to stand for their dreams.”

How the programs work

Women groups manage traditional oil making machine as part of women empowerment projects. Photo: CARE Sudan

CARE Sudan, with funding from the Embassy of the Kingdom of Netherlands in Sudan, is taking part in the Promoting Economic Empowerment and Gender Equality through Strengthened Market Systems Project, which works to empower women farmers to gain greater control over and access to agricultural resources and markets. The program hopes this can serve as a foundation for women’s entrepreneurship, which will then contribute to improved food security at both the community and household level.

The project fosters economic opportunities for women farmers in South Kordofan’s mango and vegetable fields, while strengthening the ties between women-led farmer groups and the private sector. By improving women’s access to finance, addressing harmful gender norms, and tackling gender-based violence, the project seeks to establish a better overall environment for women to participate in more inclusive markets.

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