Women's Empowerment and Leadership Development for Democratisation
By Maha Bebeker
Since 2010, Maha Babeker has worked with Salmmah Women’s Resource Center in Khartoum, Sudan, as their Monitoring and Evaluation Officer. Salmmah was closed without notice by the Sudanese government in June this year. Maha has also coordinated WELDD projects to reform Sudan's adultery laws and to combat forced marriage and participated in WELDD training in Cairo in 2013 (public and political participation) and Geneva in 2014 (engaging with UN mechanisms, hosted by ISHR)
Women Human Rights Defenders (WHRDs) face incredible risks as a result of their work to promote peace and justice in their communities. State and non-state actors retaliate against WHRDs because their work to promote gender equality threatens traditional social structure and conceptions of gender roles. In 2013, the United Nations reported more than 2,000 cases of WHRDs who are at risk worldwide, and in November 2013 the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution for the Protection of Women Human Rights Defenders. This landmark resolution urges States to put in place gender specific laws and policies for the protection of WHRDs and to ensure that defenders themselves are involved in the design and implementation of these measures. In addition, the resolution calls on States to protect WHRDs from reprisals for cooperating with the UN, and to ensure their full access to international human rights bodies and mechanisms.
In Sudan, WHRDs face incredible risks for their work. The Sudanese government’s restrictive policies and its sexist laws put WHRDs at increased risk and often results in the murder of women activists. In many cases women are exposed to gender specific risks, becoming victims of rape, detention, and persecution. Despite – and we could say also because – of these conditions, Salmmah Women’s Resource Centre has for years been striving to provide support women’s organisations and to further women’s causes. Salmmah began in 1997, initiated by a group of leading Sudanese women as a nonprofit civil society organisation. The organisation gives special attention to the combating of violence against women and the acquisition of human rights. Our main focus is mobilizing and empowering women in order to influence policies and overcome structural, political and legal obstacles to the advancement of women’s rights. Salmmah has also led the way in research, documentation, and dissemination of knowledge on women’s rights and human rights in Sudan. Salmmah has raised awareness of the issue of culturally-justified violence against women (CVAW), and has advocated for legal changes such as amending the Sudanese criminal code so that it does not conflate cases of rape with adultery, and raising the legal age of marriage. We have also challenged Sudan’s restrictive dress code law so that women might live without the fear of being arrested for what they wear.
In the nearly 17 years that Salmmah has been going, working in an authoritarian environment has had its challenges. However on June 24th this year, the unthinkable happened. The Ministry of Justice cancelled our registration license, leading to Salmmah’s immediate closure. There was no due process given to cancelling the license, no protocol suggesting how we might be able to appeal the decision. Our director was simply handed a decree revoking Salmmah’s registration license as a non-profit company, outlining its immediate liquidation, and the appointment of a committee to oversee its dissolution. Special Forces invaded our office, threatened our staff, and seized our property. This was accompanied by unlawful detention of members of staff, and the seizure of all our funds.
We are not the only ones; in the last two years the government has closed several civil society organisations that work on the promotion of human rights, and more closures are set to come. WHRDs and organisations have been using various platforms and avenues to combat the ongoing violations. Strategies employed include press releases, campaigns, and meetings with stakeholders such as international NGOs and diplomatic missions, and regional and local partners. However progress has been limited. This is primarily because previous pressure placed on the Khartoum regime wasn’t followed up with stronger and powerful sanction o stop the regime from committing human right violations.
As a woman, I am a target for various forms of threats, abuses, and harassment on a daily basis. There are not many choices I would be able to make that wouldn’t affect my life and my survival in this type of society. For WHRDs to be able to live in a free world is a true privilege that no one in Sudan and other parts of the world with Draconian regimes can ever dream of. The violations of my basic rights, to be threatened on the basis of the choices I make, the restrictions places on my activism and the pressure placed upon me to prevent me from being vocal about my rights as a human and a woman, is fundamental.
One Billion Rising celebrations in Khartoum.
In the last two years, Salmmah has organised several public events to support women’s rights – rallies, demonstrations, and cultural events. Salmmah was the leading organiser for the Khartoum-based international Women’s Day celebrations and the One Billion Rising gatherings, and the campaigns around the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence. The main goal of these actions was to raise awareness about violence against women and to stress the need for greater gender equality in Sudan. The abuses we have been trying to combat in Sudan through our work as WHRDs are not only a Sudanese issue, but should be of international concern.
On a personal level, I still cannot comprehend the closure of Salmmah, even when I talk about it. But even though our centre has been closed, I still believe that where there is a will there is a way. Through true peaceful activism we can continue to challenge the darkness of abuses and violations. I pray that as I campaign to combat violations, all WHRDs internationally are behind me and that we share our common fight for justice and equality for all citizens, especially women. I hope that women will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with each other in Sudan, and worldwide, to advocate for an environment that’s free from abuse and violations in all area of life. I will not be discouraged by any fears, and I will continue to raise my voice for those who are voiceless and helpless. The risks are high, but the losses could be higher.
This is the 12th entry in our #16Days 2014 blogging series. We are bringing you an entry from one of our inspiring activists on each day during the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence.