In the Shadows of Conflict: The Role of Sudanese Women in Building Peace and Stability

In light of the ongoing conflict in Sudan, Our Secure Future intern Luz Velazquez discusses the contributions made by Sudanese women in advocating for peace and the necessity of including their voices in the formal peace negotiations.

Amidst the ongoing turmoil in Sudan, a nation plagued by a history of strife, a new chapter of conflict has unfolded between the Sudanese national army and the paramilitary forces. As the power struggle grips the nation, affecting a widespread humanitarian crisis, Sudanese women are emerging as vital agents of change. Their historic resilience and activism, from challenging oppressive regimes to leading grassroots peace initiatives, underscore their indispensable role in shaping Sudan's future. Yet, despite their critical contributions, women remain marginalized in formal peace negotiations. As Sudan teeters on the brink, the imperative to include women's voices in the peace process has never been more urgent. 

Overview of the Conflict in Sudan 

On April 15, 2023, conflict erupted between the Sudanese national army, the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a paramilitary group. This represents the latest chapter in a long history of conflict dating back to the nation’s first civil war in 1955.  

The current conflict stems from a power struggle between the SAF’s General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and RSF’s General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (Hemetti). Originally formed by ousted president Omer Al-Bashir in 2012-2013, the RSF was intended as a rapid response unit to combat rebel factions in the southern and western parts of the country. The RSF has its origins in the Janjaweed militias responsible for atrocities during the Darfur genocide in the early 2000s and perpetuates a long-standing practice among the SAF of militarizing rural and nomadic communities to maintain control over rebellious movements. 

After al-Bashir’s ousting in 2019, a fragile power-sharing agreement, known as the Constitutional Declaration, was established between civilian and military leaders. However, tensions remained high due to military resistance to reforms, economic crises, security challenges, and political infighting. In April 2023, these tensions boiled over into open conflict as both factions vied for control of the country, leading to widespread violence and a growing humanitarian crisis. 

A Country on the Brink of Collapse 

The human cost of the conflict has been devastating. Over 6 million people have been forced to flee their homes, with women and children making up the majority of the displaced. Today, Sudan has the largest number of displaced individuals in the world. An additional 1.4 million people have sought refuge in neighboring countries including the Central African Republic, Chad, Egypt, Ethiopia, and South Sudan.  

Inside Sudan, the situation is dire. Ongoing fighting has led to severe shortages of food, water, and fuel. Communications and electricity are limited, exacerbating the crisis. The healthcare system is likewise critically affected, facing severe shortages of medicines and vital supplies. 25 million people are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance, and the country is grappling with one of the world's worst hunger crises. At least 18 million people, over 37% of the population, are acutely food insecure.  

According to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data project, the conflict has resulted in over 10,400 civilian deaths—a number that likely falls short of the actual total, given the difficulty of accessing many affected areas.  

Impact of Conflict on Women and Their Communities  

Sudanese women, who frequently suffer the most during political and economic turmoil, have once again found themselves caught in the crosshairs of a fierce power struggle between two rival generals. The collapse of social structures and a pervasive lack of security have resulted in women becoming targets of violence, including sexual violence strategically used as a weapon of war.   

Women in central and northern Khartoum confront the daily horror of sexual violence perpetrated by both factions, with their homes no longer safe havens but traps where they are left vulnerable to assault. The healthcare infrastructure left in shambles in Khartoum—with hospitals bombed, damaged, or understaffed—place survivors of violence and pregnant women in further peril. The stigma and shame attached to sexual violence furthermore contribute to the underreporting of such crimes and prevent many from seeking support and services.   

With many men dead or incapacitated, women have had to assume the role of primary breadwinners and caretakers for their families, struggling against a backdrop of limited access to healthcare, education, and economic resources—factors that have further entrenched their socioeconomic disadvantages. The situation in Sudan calls for urgent action to safeguard the well-being and dignity of Sudanese women and girls, ensuring their protection from violence and exploitation as they navigate the harrowing challenges of life in a conflict zone. With peace talks expected to resume in May 2024, it is equally crucially to prioritize women in the peace process, recognizing that their unique experiences and contributions are essential to achieving lasting peace and stability in the region. Without the voice of Sudanese women, any efforts towards peace will be incomplete and less effective. 

The Role of Sudanese Women in the Future of Sudan 

In this context of adversity and perseverance, Sudanese women have over time emerged as pivotal actors in the nation's political landscape, particularly in the realm of peacebuilding. Rooted in a rich history of resistance against oppressive regimes, their activism dates back to the establishment of the Sudanese Women’s Union (SWU) in 1952. Despite facing marginalization and subjugation in the political sphere, Sudanese women have demonstrated remarkable resilience, actively seeking to participate in peace processes and advocating for transformative change. 

A prominent example of women's impact is evident in the Darfur genocide, where individuals like Hawa Abdallah played crucial roles in fostering peace and championing women's rights. Similarly, during the 2019 ousting of President Omar al-Bashir, women led the charge in mass protests, driving forward the demands for political reform and societal change. Women's groups in Sudan have also played a vital role in providing essential support to conflict-affected populations, often filling gaps left by governmental and non-governmental organizations. Their efforts further extended to advocating for long-term societal changes, including legal reforms aimed at safeguarding women and girls from violence and discrimination.  

Nevertheless, women have frequently been marginalized in political transition processes. This was starkly illustrated in the August 2019 negotiations, where only two women were present, sparking frustration among female protesters and activists. The continued exclusion of women from formal peace negotiations and decision-making processes undermines the potential for sustainable peace. This exclusion is indicative of prevailing societal norms that restrict leadership roles to men, coupled with the absence of frameworks that promote women’s representation in peacebuilding efforts. 

Current initiatives such as the Peace for Sudan Platform, which encompasses over 49 women-led organizations and initiatives, are instrumental in amplifying women's voices in peace endeavors, underscoring their indispensable role in fostering enduring peace. Moreover, the recent Tagadom conference, with 40% female participation, marks a significant step toward inclusivity and the enhancement of democracy and human rights in Sudan. However, formidable challenges persist, with women frequently overlooked in peacebuilding processes even in the current US-Saudi mediated Jeddah process, impeding the full realization of their rights and contributions as citizens. Such initiatives deserve greater attention and investment to ensure that women's vital roles are fully recognized and supported. 

Including Sudanese Women in the Peace Process 

The evidence is clear: including women in peace processes leads to more comprehensive, sustainable peace agreements and greater respect for human rights and gender equality. Yet, current conflict resolution mechanisms predominantly reward armed combatants with political and economic advantages, sidelining the contributions of women leaders who possess an acute understanding of the conflict's varied impacts on the ground and viable solutions. It is imperative to shift from a mindset that only men with arms are given a seat at the table and to start valuing the perspectives and solutions offered by women. It is essential for the success of peacebuilding efforts that women's voices are not only heard but also given significant weight, as they bring unique and indispensable insights as to conditions on the ground as well as contributing factors to peace and security. For instance, during the 2005 Abuja peace talks for the Darfur conflict, it was women who noted the significance of a local river that had dried up—critical local knowledge that was otherwise ignored. 

In this context, the challenges faced by the peace talks in Jeddah highlight the necessity of integrating diverse voices at the table. Talks have stalled due to a lack of progress on key issues, including the implementation of a ceasefire and the establishment of humanitarian corridors. Negotiations have been hindered by a lack of trust and continued fighting on the ground, making it difficult to reach a consensus on the terms of peace. The talks, which were initiated a year ago under U.S.-Saudi auspices as a form of emergency diplomacy, necessitate a fresh perspective for their potential resumption. Moreover, they demand increased transparency. The lack of transparency surrounding the content and substance of the Jeddah talks has led to widespread suspicion, underscoring the need for a more inclusive approach. This inclusivity could manifest in various forms, such as establishing a structured mechanism for regular consultations with women who are most affected by the violence or extending invitations to women, youth, and frontline responders to observe the talks. Furthermore, the creation of nearby forums for these groups to amplify their collective rejection of war or allow for their direct participation in some or all issues, could also prove beneficial. Women’s groups such as the Darfur Women Action Group and the Peace for Sudan Platform are prime examples of organizations that should be included in the peace process.  

The peace talks in Sudan have long been shrouded in secrecy, appearing more like closed-door negotiations between warring factions. It is now imperative to hold the international community accountable and ensure that the voices of the Sudanese people, particularly women, are not only heard but also central to the discussions. The future of Sudan rests in the hands of its people, and it is time to shift away from ad hoc diplomatic efforts towards a more sustainable solution—one that embraces the inclusion of Sudanese women. Their perspectives, experiences, and insights are essential for forging a path toward lasting peace and prosperity in Sudan.