Sudanese security forces have used threats, assault and rape to silence female human rights activists, forcing many to abandon their work or flee the country, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Thursday.
Government officials have targeted women involved in protests and rights campaigns, including students, teachers, lawyers and journalists, threatening to tar their reputations and warning of retaliation if they speak out, HRW said.
Violence and abuse of women have increased in recent years along with the rise of protests and demonstrations following the Arab Spring, South Sudan’s secession from Sudan in 2011 and Sudan’s economic downturn, according to the rights group.
“Sudanese women who defend human rights experience political repression like their male colleagues but are also vulnerable to sexual assault and intimidation because they are women,” said HRW Africa director Daniel Bekele.
“Sudanese security officials often take advantage of discriminatory laws and social conventions to silence them,” he added, speaking at the launch of HRW’s report “Good Girls Don’t Protest”.
Sudan’s public morality laws dictate how women dress, limit their movements and role in public life, and impose corporal punishments of lashing and stoning, according to HRW.
More than 40,000 women in the Sudanese capital Khartoum were taken to court in 2012 for violating the 1996 Public Order Act, said the Equal Rights Trust, a London-based advocacy group.
One activist said she was arrested on her way to distribute pamphlets urging voters to boycott elections in April 2015, in which President Omar Hassan al-Bashir extended his 26 years in power with landslide victories for himself and his ruling party.
Bashir’s critics say there has been a crackdown on media, civil society and political opposition groups.
“They said: ‘You women activists and party members, you are all sharmuta [whores]'”, said one activist, one of more than 85 female activists and human rights defenders interviewed by HRW.
“I said I work in what I believe. Then they started kicking me and one of them took his trousers off and started raping me.”
After her release, the woman said security forces rearrested her and threatened her against speaking out about the rape.
Other women, including a student and youth activist, told HRW they had been detained for protesting by government officials who pressured their families to stop their activism.
“Security officials do not need to detain us any more – the family members can do their jobs for them,” said one student who was beaten by her brother and held in her house for months.
No security officer has been disciplined or prosecuted for rape, sexual assault, or harassment of activists, as national security laws give officers wide-ranging powers and shield them from prosecution, according to HRW.
“The government’s failure to investigate allegations of sexual violence and harassment contributes to the hostile environment for female activists,” Bekele said.
The Sudanese government could not be reached for comment.