chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.
December 11, 2023

Supporting Women’s Empowerment in Fluid Operating Environments

The Importance of Safeguarding, Do No Harm, and Gender-Based Violence Best Practices in Sudan

The path to establishing effective and quality women’s empowerment programming in Sudan has faced many hurdles, especially in the face of sociopolitical unrest following the October 2021 military coup. Although Sudan experienced notable improvements to the legal status of women following the ousting of President Bashir in 2019 and the establishment of a transitional government, the 2021 coup created a wave of setbacks that have significantly stalled further progress over the past two years. Women and girls are most vulnerable and have specific needs during times of conflict and insecurity. Therefore, supporting gender equality and gender-based violence (GBV) prevention and response programming, as well as addressing violent extremism (VE), during these periods is critical, despite challenges to implementation.
Within this context, the Women and Girls Empowered (WAGE) global consortium funded by the U.S. Department of State, Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues (S/GWI) concluded its implementation of an integrated, multi-disciplinary program, “Increasing Access to Justice and Holistic Services for Survivors of GBV in Sudan”, aimed at addressing GBV against women and girls in Sudan. Implemented across Khartoum, Kassala, White Nile, and Darfur States from July 2021 to June 2023, our program was designed to improve the prevention and response to GBV and VE by strengthening the commitment and capacity of women-led/women-serving civil society organizations (CSOs) to provide holistic, survivor-centered services to vulnerable women in Sudan. The program was led by the American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative (ABA ROLI) in close partnership with Search for Common Ground (Search). Though implementation was marred by escalating sociopolitical conflict across the country, the initiative established a nascent consortium and referral system among three GBV service providers, a women’s center in Darfur focused on addressing the needs of survivors, and an inaugural participatory report assessing the nexus of GBV and VE in Sudan.

Our Research Findings

WAGE conducted foundational research exploring the extent to which the drivers of GBV and VE intersect. Lead by Search, our participatory assessment incorporated the perspectives of Sudanese women and members of the target communities. Contrary to its initial presumption, the assessment found no causal relationship between GBV and VE. Rather, it established that the same factors that permit GBV to exist also make communities vulnerable to violent extremist organizations’ (VEOs) recruitment tactics. Both GBV and violent extremist ideologies thrive in communities where rigid gender roles limit possibilities and constrain acceptable behavior. Sudan is a highly patriarchal state where strictly defined gender roles are observed. The degree to which women in Sudan have autonomy is shrouded in complex social, cultural, and traditional obligations and is usually determined by the mindset of their closest male relative. Within this sociocultural backdrop, GBV flourishes: thirty-eight percent of girls are married before the age of 18, eighty-seven percent of girls between the ages of 15-49 are subjected to Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C), and thirty-four percent of women experience domestic violence in Sudan, with the majority of these atrocities going unreported and survivors left entirely without support. Our assessment found the strongest barriers to GBV survivors accessing services remain sociocultural perspectives on women and their place in society, a legal landscape that is scant on key GBV laws and provisions, and communities that have a limited understanding of GBV due to the normalization of violence. The effects of ongoing conflict, limited statehood, and a failing economy further destabilize the context, and relegate Sudan as an at-risk country for VE. Recruitment into VEOs and a deepening influence of extremism among young students has increased, with recruitment efforts including both young men and women. 

​At the same time, ABA ROLI also conducted a joint GBV service mapping and access to justice assessment to explore the current state of GBV service provision in the four target regions. Findings of the assessment revealed the strongest barriers to survivors seeking support is communities’ limited understanding of GBV due to its normalization both by men and women. This increases reluctance to report and intervene on the survivor’s and the bystander’s end. Reporting patterns also vary across contexts, with Darfur experiencing widespread sexual violence as a weapon of war, often addressed through health services and local reconciliation mechanisms. In White Nile, reporting to the police is more common, while child marriage is prevalent. Conversely in Kassala and Eastern Sudan, a high level of social stigma leads to most cases going unreported. Across the various regions, however, survivors reported prioritizing health services as the crucial first step in reporting. This presents a challenge in Sudan as there is a noticeable lack of awareness and application of survivor-centered and trauma-informed approaches by service providers. Additionally, law enforcement and the justice system face significant shortcomings including a shortage of trained police in GBV best practices, limited understanding of Do No Harm (DNH) and safeguarding, and inadequate recognition of domestic violence (DV). Further obstacles include incriminatory practices, absence of a DNA clause, a lack of forensic labs, and low awareness of GBV medical examination protocols. WAGE partners used assessment findings to focus programmatic efforts on improving services for GBV survivors through male engagement, awareness-raising campaigns, training, and capacity building for providers on survivor-centered services, as well as enhancing coordination among different actors involved in addressing GBV.

Program Achievements

Service provision during conflict:  Although programming was truncated due to Sudan’s recent conflict, a referral system established by the program continued to provide critical GBV services. Comprised of local civil society groups, Ahfad Trauma Centre (ATC), Mutinawat, and Darfur Women’s Action Group (DWAG) monitored and documented cases, coordinated with a specialized obstetrics and gynecology unit at a nearby hospital, and connected the survivors’ families with lawyers to secure legal aid.
Networking GBV service providers: As noted above ABA ROLI’s assessment found GBV service provision is hindered in Sudan by a variety of factors – providers are often scattered across contexts, and comprehensive mapping efforts tend to be outdated and limited to specific areas. While GBV survivors struggle to find support from service providers, service providers struggle to provide holistic services due to a lack of coordination mechanisms. ABA ROLI facilitated the establishment of a nascent referral system to provide GBV services. ROLI conducted foundational activities such as safeguarding trainings for these service providers to ensure they were offering services using survivor centered and trauma informed approaches. Our approach was highly localized and leveraged local/context specific expertise including local partner ATC. In close consultation with ABA ROLI, WAGE local partner ATC launched a training series to enable the formation of holistic and multi-disciplinary referral networks among service providers. The technical assistance offered to ATC by ABA ROLI drew from similar WAGE programming in Jordan. The training series included CSO leaders, mental health professionals, and lawyers from various states across the country, ensuring that specific local nuances were accommodated. The sessions offered a valuable space for providers to network and share their experiences. For example, participants shared how local circumstances impacted service delivery, fostering collaborative problem-solving and the application of each provider’s unique expertise. For instance, if lawyers encountered challenges with complex mental health issues, specialized professionals offered guidance on optimal approaches. Moreover, ATC’s training sessions facilitated valuable networking opportunities. Some attendees were able to participate in the entire series, establishing connections and maintaining them post-training to access wider networks.
In addition, ATC included men service providers in their trainings as a valuable male engagement strategy under WAGE Sudan. Male engagement is another critical measure in ensuring long-term programmatic success, as well as a risk mitigation strategy against GBV. In the context of Sudan, specifically, this is a challenge since GBV prevention and support falls predominantly on women. The male service providers who attended the sessions remained actively engaged in discussions and shared their interest in seeing the effects of increased male participation in women’s empowerment spaces as well as the spillover effects onto their own practices, beliefs, and behaviors. For example, during one of ATC’s trainings for service providers, participants discussed how they would handle a case if a GBV survivor decided not to pursue legal action. The training encouraged participants, particularly male lawyers, to consider respect, one of the guiding principles of survivor-centered care. By the end of the training, participants recognized the importance of prioritizing the choices, wishes, and rights of a survivor in terms of case management and legal support. Many male participants also noted it was their first time attending a training on GBV or gender, as stigmatization of men’s participation in women’s empowerment in Sudan creates societal barriers for men to access these types of capacity building opportunities.  
Fostering Community Dialogue on GBV and VE: As part of the WAGE initiative, Search collaborated with three local partners to support women-led and women-serving CSOs and women leader in Khartoum, Kassala, and White Nile. This holds particular significance in regions marked by conflict and insecurity, where civil, tribal, and religious authorities often lack the capacity or willingness to explore the nexus of GBV and VE. This further leaves women vulnerable to recruitment messaging from VEOs. Without external assistance, women and girls who have been recruited by VEOs often find it challenging to reintegrate into their communities and those who have experienced GBV are likely to endure stigmatization and potential ostracization from their families and communities.
At the outset of implementation, Search utilized its signature Common Ground Approach (CGA), which emphasized principles such as dignity, identity, and empathy, and conflict resolution through non-adversarial communication. Following the CGA training, a conflict sensitivity and facilitation training equipped women with the knowledge and skills needed to take on leadership roles to foster open dialogue about GBV, VE, as well as community peace and security.
Expanding on our localized approach, WAGE convened validation sessions that focused on discussing findings of WAGE research on GBV and VE. With more than 60 percent of participants being local women, WAGE partners took deliberate steps to ensure this group could actively shape and guide the development of community-level initiatives by women. These initiatives included activities like screening contextually and thematically relevant films and facilitating discussions on preventing GBV and countering recruitment efforts by VEOs. These sessions also educated communities about available support services. Momentum for these activities was disrupted by the ongoing conflict.
Safeguarding and building trust with communities: Our localized approach focused heavily on interfacing with communities and fostering sustainability to the extent possible, given the ongoing conflict. The program worked with existing structures including WAGE local partner DWAG’s Women Empowering Women Center—a one-stop facility addressing the intersecting needs of survivors, which was especially strategic. Drawing on lessons learned during ATC’s training sessions under WAGE, DWAG incorporated best practices for women’s and girls’ safe spaces into its existing Women Empowering Women Center. For example, the center shifted from openly identifying as a GBV support facility to discreetly presenting itself as an economic empowerment resource hub, as these resources were already a component of the center’s multi-service support package. This branding strategy makes the center easily accessible and highly valuable to vulnerable and at-risk women. By sidestepping the stigmas associated with GBV, the confidentiality of the hub mitigates potential safeguarding risks women may face when reporting GBV or seeking support. The center offers a comprehensive package of GBV services while also serving as a platform for economic empowerment, offering resettlement packages for those in dangerous abusive situations, disseminating information on economic opportunities, and providing materials for GBV awareness raising. In fact, some of the social workers and lawyers providing services at the center were part of the series of trainings launched by ATC. Therefore, WAGE ensured these service providers have adequate knowledge and skills to provide high-quality case management support to GBV survivors.
In conjunction with the Women Empowering Women Center, DWAG also mobilized and trained community-based focal points to target vulnerable women that are generally excluded from GBV prevention and women’s empowerment programming efforts (i.e., internally displaced women and those confined to their households) in peripheral communities such as Kabkabiya, El-Fasher, Zamzam, and Nyala.  Because the focal points were already living and active within target neighborhoods, there was an innate sense of trust between women, including GBV survivors, and the focal points. Consequently, women felt more secure and at ease when accessing resources. The focal points would also organize awareness sessions within the community, thereby strengthening the connection between GBV survivors and service providers. 

Future Programming

As a result of the ongoing conflict in Sudan, WAGE was not able to build the capacity of public institutions such as government attorneys, police, and social workers, to apply survivor-centered and trauma-informed approaches. This is an area for future integrated GBV/WPS programs in Sudan should focus on.  This is especially important in a conservative country like Sudan where public trust in bureaucratic and state processes is low, and GBV-related concerns are mitigated within the family, usually by male stakeholders who uphold the very power dynamics that perpetuate GBV.

Despite implementation delays resulting from several bouts of conflict including the most recent one, the WAGE initiative offered valuable insights that could guide future attempts at addressing GBV in the country. One pivotal element was the initiative’s structure, which featured a central gender, inclusion, and safeguarding advisor. This advisor played a crucial role in shaping activity design in collaboration with local partners, both during the initial planning stages and throughout implementation. While Do No Harm and safeguarding concepts may seem standard in the West, many local organizational personnel lack an understanding of these survivor-centered guiding principles. Meeting local partners where they are and customizing capacity building efforts allowed for dynamic and highly participatory discussions involving both international and local stakeholders. Through WAGE, ABA ROLI provided partners with expertise on matters of gender, inclusion, safeguarding, and GBV principles, while local partners, as frontline actors, shared their on-the-ground experience, leading to a mutually enriching experience.

With the increased use of sexual violence as a weapon of war, ensuring the sustained partnerships of consortium partners as well as mobilizing additional national service providers is more necessary than ever. Although the Khartoum region remains unstable, key organizations are moving their offices to peripheral towns where thousands of internally displaced women are relocating. Existing services on the ground to provide psychosocial, legal, and lifesaving services must be supplemented by international efforts. Beyond the legal international obligations mandating governments and humanitarian agencies address GBV even in the most challenging conflict contexts, establishing GBV services and referral mechanisms serves as a crucial means of preventing the escalation of violence, breaking cycles of abuse, as well as fostering community resilience. 

Published on December 12, 2023.

*Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of the United States Government. 
Women and Girls Empowered (WAGE) is a global consortium to advance the status of women and girls, led by the American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative (ABA ROLI) in close partnership with the Center for International Private Enterprise, Grameen Foundation, and Search for Common Ground. WAGE works to strengthen the capacity of private sector organizations (PSOs) and civil society organizations (CSOs) in target countries to improve the prevention of and response to gender-based violence (GBV); advance the women, peace, and security (WPS) agenda; and support women’s economic empowerment (WEE). In this context, WAGE provides direct assistance to women and girls, including information, resources, and services they need to succeed as active and equal participants in the global economy. WAGE also engages in collaborative research and learning to build a body of evidence on relevant promising practices in these thematic areas. To account for the deeply interconnected nature of women’s and girls’ experiences, WAGE’s initiatives employ approaches that are highly collaborative, integrated, and inclusive. WAGE is funded by the U.S. Department of State Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues.

The materials contained herein represent the opinions of the authors and editors and should not be construed to be those of either the American Bar Association unless adopted pursuant to the bylaws of the Association. Nothing contained herein is to be considered as the rendering of legal advice for specific cases, and readers are responsible for obtaining such advice from their own legal counsel. These materials and any forms and agreements herein are intended for educational and informational purposes only.