US Group Warns of Sexual Violence Against Darfur Refugees
US Group Warns of Sexual Violence Against Darfur Refugees
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The U.S.-based group Physicians for Human Rights says Darfuri refugees sheltering in refugee camps in Chad are subject to ongoing sexual violence. The group is calling for more global awareness of the matter in the wake of the U.S. government's new policy on Sudan.

U.S. President Barack Obama launched the new policy last Monday. It focuses on the situation in South Sudan as well as the ongoing crisis in Darfur and calls for a "definitive end" to the fighting in the western Darfur region.  But Physicians for Human Rights says one issue that was not explicitly addressed is that of curbing the sexual violence that continues to occur in Darfur and in camps for displaced people in neighboring Chad.

Susannah Sirkin is the group's Deputy Director.

"We are hopeful that there is a sense of urgency about the new policy but we have a major concern in that as the important effort to assure the CPA, the north south agreement goes forward and the elections in the south happen without violence, the humanitarian crisis in Darfur may not get the attention it deserves," said Susannah Sirkin.

Medical experts from Physicans for Human Rights have been documenting gender-based violence in Darfur since 2004. The situation has worsened since the government of Sudan expelled many aid agencies in March.  Sirkin says the ongoing need for physical and psychological care is not being met.

"It definitely is still a crisis - a crisis in terms of food, in terms of medical care, in terms of gender violence," she said. "One of the things we're most concerned about is that when the humanitarian organizations were kicked out, although there has been a certain kind of replacement of key needs, the gender-based violence program has not been allowed to return to Darfur."

Some humanitarian organizations have been allowed to return to the region since the mass expulsions. But the majority of agencies that run programs for survivors of sexual violence have not been allowed back in.

Sirkin says that is a deliberate move.

"On our understanding the government of Sudan does not want to acknowledge that rape has occured in the IDP camps," said Sirkin.

In the past, aid agencies operating in Darfur ran 'safe centers' where women could gather and talk.

But those, too, were closed by the government in March, perhaps out of fear that women who had already lost everything - their homes, families, pride and dignity - would speak freely about sexual attacks.

Dr. Julia VanRooyen is a doctor who contributed to Physicians for Human Rights' most recent investigation into the situation. She says Darfuri women continue to face sexual violence on a daily basis.

"They are really living in inhumane conditions," said Julia VanRooyen. "They are chronically hungry and they are constantly worried about feeding their families. There are significant shortages in medications and medical services. And then I think the very significant finding for me was the ongoing physical and sexual violence that these women are facing on a day to day basis."

The group interviewed women living in camps for the displaced in Darfur and across the border in Chad.

"Of the 88 women that we interviewed, 32 reported being raped, and virtually half of those rapes had occurred in the camps in Chad," she said.

Dr. VanRooyen says the lack of gender-based violence programs means that women are left extremely vulnerable, even more so than before.

"They try to band together, to go out in groups, but they have to go out, they have to go out to graze their animals and to collect firewood," said Dr. VanRooyen. "So they are in a position of needing to leave the camps but it is very unsafe for them to do so."

Physicians for Human Rights says the United States, together with the UN, should demand a commitment from the government of Sudan to remove obstacles to gender-based violence support programs in Darfur.

Susannah Sirkin says the issue ought to take on as much importance as the other goals of the new policy on Sundan

"We want to make sure that as the larger goals of the Obama policy move ahead, that this is not forgotten and that this gets equal attention," she said.

The group, Physicians for Human Rights is calling for an independent fact-finding mission to assess the current human rights situation in Darfur.