Project Responding to Sexual Violence in Darfur: December 28, 2020 update
December 28, 2020
Project Responding to Sexual Violence in Darfur
Gaffar Mohammud Saeneen and Eric Reeves, Co-Chairs
December 28, 2020 Update
Gaffar and I have been in continual communication about our project in Zamzam camp and the El Fasher area of North Darfur [Project Mission Statement].
Since our last update [December 10th Update], we have seen some deeply encouraging developments and have a strong sense that the counselors working in the camp and capital city are determined, resourceful, and have established strong relations with not only the girls and women of Zamzam camp but women in leadership positions within the camp’s governing organizations.
The efficiencies and economies of the greater “Team Zamzam” on the ground continue to grow, and the figures for benchmark goals are certainly remarkable. A spreadsheet will soon be available with total numbers for women and girls seen for counseling, and the distribution of food, sanitary soap, and other critical supplies.
Additionally, we have begun efforts to help in dealing with fistulas,one of the cruelest legacies of sexual violence in Darfur over the past seventeen years. Sadly, the only real treatment for the overwhelming majority of fistula cases is surgery, and our resources cannot yet pay for such medical treatment. But we can supply sanitary cotton pads, sanitizing soap (which is now distributed quite widely in the four sectors of Zamzam camp), and antibiotics for bladder infections, one of the most common side effects of fistulas. Our ability to purchase such medicine is tenuous, but we have committed to supplying whatever pharmaceuticals are possible. We will also continue to seek funding for surgical remediation.
The highlights of what Gaffar has heard directly from Team Zamzam on the ground in Darfur appear below, very lightly edited for clarity in a few places. I think the numbers and developments he reports largely speak for themselves, although I have interpolated a few remarks, in italics.
Perhaps the single most encouraging communication Gaffar has sent me arrived on December 27th, from one of the women working as a counselor to victims of sexual violence. The sense of empowerment expressed here gives us good reason for optimism about our larger project:
“Praise be to God for the grace. After great efforts made by me and others within our community, we have made substantial progress with various constituencies—whether they are representatives of different sectors, those responsible for women's sections,various groups of youth, influential women within the camp, some local omdas of various sections, and the sisters of Team Zamzam team. We have been able to break down many of the restrictions and misconceptions within our larger community. In turn, this has made it easier for us to reach a considerable number of victims within the past two months.
“Most of the victims we spoke with are victims of sexual violence, and at the sametime they are the victims of their families, who prevented them from talking with others about what they have suffered because of fear of bringing shame and bad reputations to their families. Many of the victims are still suffering from some psychological problems and have difficulties in interactions within the community around them and even with their families. But after counseling sessions and talking with them individually, their behavior has begun to change for the better—something this program has allowed us to achieve.”
Email from Gaffar, December 26:
[There have been communication problems because of the continual] interruption of electricity in some suburbs of El Fasher, which has made for some in establishing effective communication channels over the past two days; but we have managed to establish direct telephone channels to get updated on the actual situation.
 In addition to the nine patients with fistulas which I mentioned last week, another twenty patients have come forward in the last four days to speak to the counselors;
 Seventy-three new victims of sexual violence have been newly identified since December 12, and have received psycho-social counseling.
 Of these victims, over forty are in their early thirties; and the rest are mostly in their twenties and teens; among them there are four very recent victims.
 Those who were seen by the counselors felt relieved, happy, more assured; counselors reported signs of confidence, and recovery is quite visible on their faces.
 Some of the victims were listed on a priority list, and they will be seen continuously in private sessions by the counselors if there are any signs of growing depression.
[Clinical depression—including suicides, suicidal ideation, and lack of interest in life or work—has been all too common in a population that has had the benefit of almost no psycho-social services for many years. A 2009 report by Physicians for Human Rights, based on interviews with women and girls in a refugee camp in eastern Chad captures some of the terrible toll rape and sexual violence have taken (Eric served as an adviser in the preparation of this report).]
 A general meeting of the team Zamzam has been set for December 31 to assess progress and performance of the Team last month, as well as priorities for the coming month, and to establish plans for distribution in January 2011.
Email from Gaffar, December 20:
 Over the past two days nine victims were identified as suffering from urinary fistulas in Zamzam camp—three from Section A, two from Section B, and four from Section C (assessment in Section D is still in process).
Most of these victims are young girls and women,whose ages range from sixteen to twenty-nine. According to the counselors observation and estimates, there could be hundreds of victims suffering from urinary fistulas in total silence because of fear of social isolation, stigmatizing. Shame haunts them with nightmares and has inflicted irreparable damage in their daily lives, as they fear becoming known to their families and neighbors. This is what is forcing the victims to suffer in total silence. But since the counselors made a breakthrough with a considerable number of victims within the space of a few days, I'm optimistic many more will come forward in the coming weeks and months.
We have agreed that these nine victims should be accompanied, prioritized, supported with necessary medicines, helped with psychological counseling, and taken care of discreetly and professionally, hoping that they will fully recover and regain their well-being and lost confidence.
[Again, in most cases fistulas can be addressed fully only surgically; there is an appropriate clinic in El Fasher, but the cost of surgery is far beyond what these girls and women can afford. We hope to be able to have the resources to pay for surgery for the women suffering most intensely]
We also agreed to allocate a budget of $300 dollars on a monthly basis to buy the necessary medicines for relief of urinary fistulas, and another $200 to buy special necessities for girls, such as hygienic cotton. The primary goal of this plan is to create an atmosphere of safety and encouragement for these victims so that we can easily reach the hundreds of silent victims through these who came to us.
I attach here for you one photo of some of the victims, which was sent by the counselors yesterday. I will keep you updated on any progress.
[It has not seemed appropriate to me to share this photo; but it is utterly remarkable and deeply encouraging that a group of eight women would allow themselves to be photographed as fistula victims. This tells me that an extraordinary level of trust has been established between women who are victims of sexual violence and the Team Zamzam counselors; it also tells me that there is both trust in and hope for what our larger project may bring to the people of Darfur.]
Email from Gaffar, December 17:
Here is the list of our Counselors (I have redacted the list so as to exclude last names to ensure against security issues for these women—ER):
Additionally, there are 11 female volunteers from Zamzam camp who have joined the project.
Eric, I completely agree with you about the causes of urinary fistulas. Rape and sexual violence are the most likely cause of this medical condition, even as it is largely denied by from camp society, which in many cases has made the victims the objects of lies and slander.
Four counselors have assigned to investigate this issue discreetly and thoroughly by speaking to the victims of sexual violence; they are beginning to come forward to share their nightmares of sufferings. There are likely many silent victims of fistulas in the camp. I will keep you updated.
Email from Gaffar, December 15:
Since Thursday (December 10th) the counselors have been fully engaged and have been joined by 11 volunteers, all of whom are girls from Zamzam. And as usual they began by distributing basic necessities, including what has been allocated for the victims of sexual violence. Team Zamzam is giving correct instructions on how to avoid the spread of the Covid-19. The counselors have also taken important steps in collaborating with the inhabitants of Zamzam camp; this in turn has made things even easier for the counselors to talk to women and girls who have been victims of sexual violence without fear of harassment. This positive, friendly rapport with the camp residents has enabled the counselors to visit all corners and locations in each of the four sections of the camp. Our counselors now find it easy to inspect conditions of the inhabitants in all sections of the camp and to see their living conditions and learn more about their daily ordeals.
Also, the counselors have told me that the psychological state of the victims—especially those who were seen in the sessions of the last month—is improving steadily,with more victims approaching the counselors every day; their observations leave them to believe that they will see more victims soon.
The counselors are very happy with their work and all of them are saying:
"This noble task has changed their lives, planted more fresh confidence in their abilities and most importantly is enabling them to work as women, to participate in social activities, and contribute to improving the psychological well-being of the forgotten victims—too long ignored for so long by their male-dominated society, which to ignore the reality of sexual violence.”