Protecting women from danger in Darfur

Protecting women from danger in Darfur"Protection" is a term often defined within the limits of personal responsibility—we mitigate circumstance, take precautions, use our better judgment to ensure our safety and well-being. The removal of these choices exposes the fragility of our fundamental human dignities and rights.

In Darfur, an environment where law and order often functions as the exception rather than the rule, these rights are regularly challenged and violated. For those denied this protection, each day plays out in a familiar way—seeking little, but risking all.

Internally displaced person (IDP) camps, temporary havens to which thousands of Darfuris have hastily fled, offer a modicum of safety and sustenance amidst spiralling levels of deprivation and insecurity. After the reflex movement of IDPs following the Janjaweed’s genocidal offensives, these camps have been occupied by entire communities that have been victimised, and which are now wholly dependent on the succor of the international community.

Within the environs of the camp, routines are painfully regimented. The collection of water and food, verified by registration and ration cards, emphasises the hand-to-mouth subsistence of the IDP population. While the camps offer a refuge of sorts, they are not resistant to the extremities of the conflict. They are not protected by boundary fences, nor do they have patrolled entry or exit points, and though African Union soldiers maintain a physical presence in many of the camps, they have proven ineffective at countering infiltration and attacks.

One of the most serious consequences of this faltering security is the increased incidence of rape and physical assault upon women. The desperate nature of the situation was evidenced by an extraordinary joint statement made by more than 300 women in Kalma IDP camp, South Darfur, in early August, pleading for greater protection from the outside world to help ease their plight.

According to one investigation, "In addition to the sexual assaults, which include rapes, an additional 200 women and girls say they have been attacked in other ways in the last five weeks, including being beaten, punched, and kicked by assailants who lie in wait a few miles outside Kalma."

The predictability of the attacks has forced the AU to undertake firewood patrols, in order to reduce the risk to women who go outside the camps to gather wood. According to a recent report on firewood collection in both Darfur and neighbouring Ethiopia, "difficult household decisions have been made that select the least-risk strategy—better to risk (a woman or girl) being raped than (a man or boy) being killed."

Al Salaam IDP camp, a short drive from El Fasher, the capital of North Darfur, holds a population in excess of 40,000 people. Of these, it is estimated that between 6,500 to 7,000 women are burdened with the daily responsibility of firewood collection outside the camp. Huddled close on their donkeys and shrouded conservatively in their traditional dress of toab and fustar, groups of women routinely travel many miles in search of firewood.

Protecting women from danger in DarfurThe women encounter the same problems on every journey; a landscape depleted of useable fuel, harassment and intimidation by landowners and, in not infrequent cases, physical violation. Some of the attacks take place only a few hundred metres from the camps. Though it is agreed that this gross exposure to danger is morally unacceptable, firewood collection remains predicated by need, not by choice.

While a consensus on strategies has proved elusive, some initiatives have made headway in reducing the dangers. A fuel-efficient stove project introduced in Al Salaam camp has tackled this problem from a holistic perspective. Constructed using only six to eight bricks made from organic materials (often animal dung, rice husks or nut shells mixed with water and clay), the new stoves have many advantages over traditional stone cooking stoves.

One advantage of the new stoves is that they require less fuel. Under a minimal fire, the organic material inside the bricks produces insulated combustion, providing heat directly to the cooking pot. With up to 70 per cent less firewood required, the frequency of firewood collection is significantly reduced—and thus the danger to women.

Protecting women from danger in DarfurWhat is also heartening is that the women construct the stoves themselves. In a two-hour training workshop they are coached in the making, use and maintenance of the stoves. Often the stoves are gaily painted and fixed in the ground, assuming pride of place in the household plot.

The practical benefits of the fuel-efficient stove are complemented by its contribution to safety for women in the IDP camps. Although the lives of the internally displaced remain inextricably tied to the vagaries of conflict, the strengthening of protection components in humanitarian programming, recognising both physical security and human rights, is an important step towards better lives in the short term, before a meaningful context of peace can, it is hoped, be secured.



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