Sudan women decry slow progress on rights since Omar al-Bashir's fall

Sudanese women's rights activist Wini Omer speaks during an interview with AFP in Khartoum on May 14, 2018. When a Sudanese teenager was sentenced to death last week for killing her husband who had allegedly raped her, activists knew that a new fight had begun for women's rights in Sudan.
Sudanese women's rights activist Wini Omer speaks during an interview with AFP in Khartoum on May 14, 2018. When a Sudanese teenager was sentenced to death last week for killing her husband who had allegedly raped her, activists knew that a new fight had begun for women's rights in Sudan.
Image: STRINGER / AFP

Sudanese women were at the forefront of the protests that toppled autocrat Omar al-Bashir but 11 months on, activists are disappointed at a lack of progress on women's issues.

To show their frustration, dozens of women protested in front of the Justice Ministry in Khartoum on Sunday, which is International Women's Day.

The protesters presented a letter to the ministry calling for changes to laws deemed discriminatory against women, an AFP journalist said.

“Nothing has been done to meet women's demands,” Zeineb Badreddine, one of the protest organisers, said on Saturday.

An activist involved from the start of the protest movement that ended Bashir's three-decade rule last April, Badreddine has now returned to teaching almost 30 years after being fired for her “progressive ideas”.

But despite the toppling of the Islamist regime, she says the new government lacks female representation.

When Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok formed his government in September, he vowed to improve the situation for women despite the country's economic and social difficulties.

He allocated four of 17 ministerial positions to women, including the key foreign affairs portfolio. A woman was also named head of the judiciary.

But the country's top authority, the joint civilian and military Sovereign Council charged with overseeing the transition to civilian rule, only has two female members out of 11.

“If women had better representation, they would have more voices to defend their cause,” said Badreddine.

Discriminatory laws remain

Under the Islamist regime, a notorious “public order” law was used to have women publicly flogged or imprisoned for “indecent” dress or for drinking alcohol, seen as “indecent and immoral acts”.

Hamdok's government last November revoked the legislation — but many other discriminatory laws remain in place.

Badreddine decries a lack of legislation criminalising sexual harassment.

Judges in Sudan also have powers to judge whether a woman has been raped, which can sometimes lead to rape victims being prosecuted for adultery.

Lawyer and women's activist Inaam Atiq takes aim at a 1991 personal status law, which she says “is causing the suffering of thousands of women across Sudan”.

She says the legislation, inspired by Islamic law, allows 10-year-old girls to be married against their wishes.

“This text must be urgently amended and this can be done without touching Sharia (Islamic law) principles,” she said.

Another law forbids women to travel abroad unless they have permission from a male guardian — a measure that even ultraconservative Saudi Arabia has abolished.

“My guardian could be a younger brother that I raised, or even my son,” Atiq said.

Nor do courts specialising in personal status issues consider the results of DNA tests, allowing Sudanese men to shirk parental responsibilities and compounding women's problems, she said.

Activist Manal Abdelhalim expresses amazement at “voices, including those of some women, who say that the issue (of women's rights) is not a priority and that it can wait”.

But Atiq is more hopeful.

“We need immediate measures, and I think that the justice ministry and the government understand the situation,” she says.

“I am optimistic about the possibility of taking steps in the right direction.”

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