Next week, the UN Secretary-General’s report on the future of the United Nations Mission in the Central African Republic and Chad (MINURCAT) peacekeeping force in Eastern Chad will be released, outlining the withdrawal of peacekeeping troops in the Chad-Sudan border region visited by PHR researchers in 2008. The report Nowhere to Turn: Failure to Protect, Support and Assure Justice for Darfuri Women, released by PHR in June 2009, outlined urgent human rights issues in Eastern Chad, including food insecurity, camp infrastructure, access to health and psychosocial care, and security for refugee families. Among the disturbing findings of our investigation was a 50% rate of rape or sexual assault reported by women interviewed by the PHR medical team.

Since the time of PHR’s investigation, a number of security threats and human rights issues have been recorded — via international media reporting on hijackings and kidnappings of humanitarian aid workers, and reports such as that released by the Institute of Studies on Conflicts and Humanitarian Action (IECAH) on the continued need for the peacekeeping force.

Many large-scale infrastructure issues remain, such as the weak Chadian legal system, drought and food shortage, and the continued operation of militarized rebel groups in the area, as well as auxiliary practical issues such as low phone coverage (a key issue for reducing attacks against refugees and humanitarians, as emergency phone calls allow for MINURCAT forces to be alerted to security problems). The recent dispute over the continued presence of the MINURCAT force has detracted focus from these problems, which need to remain at the forefront of the diplomatic and humanitarian agenda in Chad. (Despite ongoing needs in Eastern Chad, the Chadian Government opposed the MINURCAT mission’s renewal in January 2010.)

The withdrawal of MINURCAT transfers responsibility for the security of refugees and humanitarian operations to the Government of Chad (GoC) — a significant challenge for a state with low material wealth and incomplete infrastructure. So, what can be done, given the limitations of the current circumstances?

First, it is important to remember that the continued existence of the 200,000 Darfurian refugees in Eastern Chad relies on the efforts of humanitarian aid workers and UN staff on the ground: managing the refugee camps, distributing WFP rations and shelter items, and providing emergency medical care. Humanitarian agencies have continued to operate in Eastern Chad despite increasingly frequent security threats to NGOs and personnel, and rely on police escorts in order to operate in the Phase IV security environment. The current system of police escorts for NGO convoys must be taken over by the Chadian police force, and it is particularly important that NGOs are not obliged to pay or provide other compensation for the new security arrangements, and that the GoC accept responsibility for ensuring the security of the humanitarian operations.

Secondly, refugee communities and the humanitarian actors working with refugees must be consulted and kept informed of the transition and departure of MINURCAT and how the GoC will continue MINURCAT’s security and protection activities. In order to ensure this takes place, the GoC should immediately establish a dialogue and consultation forum with refugee communities and humanitarian workers, and the international community should remain engaged in the transition process to ensure that this takes place.

Thirdly, it is of utmost importance that the MINURCAT withdrawal not be allowed to disrupt the humanitarian operations in Eastern Chad and/or detract from refugee security and protection. The continued monitoring of the human rights situation on the ground, and a specific focus on the security and protection needs of refugees, is paramount. The numbers of the civilian police force should be increased as the military component is phased out, and measures must be taken in the recruiting process to improve the conduct of police officers, sensitize police to human rights and gender issues, and dramatically raise the number of women police officers.

The disappointing withdrawal of the MINURCAT force — before the benchmarks of withdrawal have been met (see the Secretary-General’s December 2008 reports) — should not distract the UN Security Council or the international community from addressing the ongoing problems affecting the Darfurian refugee population in Eastern Chad. The reduction of arms, sexual and gender-based violence and human rights abuses (demilitarization of camps) must remain a key priority, along with assisting the voluntary and safe return of communities. In addition to resolving security issues on a community level, it is vital that widespread problems, such as the capacity and training of national law enforcement agencies, judiciary and prison systems, are addressed, and that the Chadian military assigns a quick reaction force to take over from MINURCAT’s civilian component.

(Cross-posted from Health Rights Advocate)

(Cambridge, MA) Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) has published a report documenting the scope and long-term impact of rape and other sexual violence experienced by women who fled attacks on their villages in Darfur and are now refugees in neighboring Chad.

This scientific study, conducted in partnership with Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI), corroborates women’s accounts of rape and other crimes against humanity that they have experienced in Darfur, as well as rape and deprivations of basic needs in refugee camps in Chad.

“Many Darfuri women refugees live in a nightmare of memories of past trauma compounded by the constant threat of sexual violence around the camps now,” stated PHR’s Deputy Director Susannah Sirkin, who contributed to the report. “Women who report being raped are stigmatized, and remain trapped in places of perpetual insecurity. There’s no one to stop the rapes, no one to turn to for justice for past or ongoing crimes, and little psycho-social support to address their prolonged and unimaginable traumas.”

Nowhere To Turn: Failure To Protect, Support and Assure Justice for Darfuri Women amplifies the voices of 88 women refugees in Chad’s Farchana camp, some of them breaking their silence for the first time. The women spoke to a team of four female researchers including three physicians about how they face increased misery, fear and discrimination resulting from their experiences of sexual assaults in Darfur and in Chad. This is a rare scientific study, whose researchers overcame numerous obstacles to document the impact of sexual violesnce experienced by Darfuri women refugees.

Among the 88 women refugees interviewed, 32 reported instances of confirmed or highly probable rape. Of those 32 rape reports, 17 occurred in Darfur and a roughly equal number (15) occurred in Chad. And among the instances of rape reported in Chad, the vast majority (10 of 11 confirmed reports) occurred when women left the camps to gather firewood.

Virtually half of the 88 women interviewed (46) feared ongoing sexual violence around the refugee camp.

“The atmosphere of intimidation was palpable as we listened to women describing their profound suffering and fear, and their yearning to return safely and with dignity to their former lives,” stated Dr. Sondra Crosby, a PHR consultant and expert in refugee trauma.

Last November, Physicians for Human Rights conducted 21 physical and psychological evaluations of Darfuri women refugees based on the Istanbul Protocol (IP) – the internationally accepted standards for medical assessment and documentation of the long-lasting impact of violence. All of the individuals whom PHR evaluated using the IP standards showed symptoms of major depressive disorder (19 of 21 women) and/or symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (16 of 21).

Physicians for Human Rights called for urgent and important measures to address the needs of Darfuri women survivors. Their recommendations include:

  • vigorous prosecution of rape as a war crime, including support for the International Criminal Court warrants against Sudanese perpetrators;
  • increased protection of refugees in Chad by Chadian police and international peacekeepers, including effective firewood patrols;
  • legal reforms in Chad to end impunity for sexual violence; and
  • provision of effective psychosocial support to survivors.

The report also includes a copy of a declaration called “The Farchana Manifesto” written by women in the camp in response to gender discrimination and violence. Printed in its original hand-written Arabic version, and translated into French and English, the manifesto lists women’s demands for participation in camp decision-making, an end to stigmatization and for dignity and equality. Copies of the study and the manifesto are available online at DarfuriWomen.org.

This is not my country. We get raped when we leave the camp. In my village, we could do what we wanted and there was enough food. I want to go back to my village, but it’s still not safe.

This is one of 88 Darfuri women now living in the Farchana refugee camp in Chad, who were interviewed for the new Physicians for Human Rights report Nowhere to Turn: Failure to Protect, Support and Assure Justice for Darfuri Women.

Nowhere to Turn will be published this Sunday, May 31, 2009. The Darfuri women interviewed for the report spoke about the sexual assaults visited upon them both in Darfur and in the environs of the refugee camps in Chad. They spoke about their lives and difficulties in the camp.

Women carrying sticks and water.  (Dr. Kirsten Johnson)

The report found that the Darfuri women refugees:

reported a general insecurity and unhappiness about life in the camp. Many reported being terrified of going out of the camp to graze animals or collect wood for fear of being beaten or raped. Women noted that though they had reported assaults to camp authorities, there was no response. Some feared that their families would find out if they reported the rapes. Women said that they preferred to suffer in silence rather than risk repercussions.

Nowhere to Turn reveals the profound stigma and physical violence to which many women have been subjected as a result of sexual assault. It portrays the tenacity and courage of these women who have protested gender discrimination and violence in a declaration they wrote proclaiming their lack of freedoms entitled the “Farchana Manifesto,” discussed in the report and available on this site.

Nowhere to Turn makes specific recommendations regarding prevention and protection for the Daruri refugees, justice and accountability for the crimes committed against them, and support to survivors.

The findings in the report should work to compel a just solution to the crisis in Sudan that allows these survivors to return home.