In the small offices on the ground floor of a residential building, Nahid Jibrallah holds a phone in one hand, reading information on the other; just the start of a very long day. Thanks to her, women no longer need to suffer in silence. Her organisation SEEMA offers psychological support, legal advice, and a sympathetic ear for those who have nowhere to turn.
The head of Sudan’s only organisation directly dealing with violence against women and children in the country looks elegant in long black dress and plaid jacket, but also exhausted.
Nahid Jibrallah tells us about the case of a woman whose father beat her, chained her to a bed, and broke her thumbs simply because she escaped from a forced marriage.
Her two gold bangles bang on the wood table as she peers down her glasses at the phone, then scans the room, where groups of women, some with children, are quietly speaking. Three women who say they were abused have come in today, and it’s not even 3pm. Eleven cases of abuse were referred to her yesterday, one involving a six-year-old girl.
“This is happening every day, “she says, wearily, admitting to feeling stressed. “This is not acceptable.”
Jibrallah’s organization, SEEMA, is the only place for women and children who have been abused or fear for their lives. Although people speak in hushed tones, the phones are constantly ringing– women who need help, or scared relatives trying to get help for their loved ones. Women and children come from across the country, not only from Khartoum. You can see why.
SEEMA makes an assessment of the situation, then offers legal aid, medical care, and psychological counseling to women and children who have been abused, attacked, or beaten–many by their husbands, fathers, or other family members.
The week we meet Jibrallah, she has just presented a memo to Sudan’s Attorney General on behalf of 13-year-old Samah el-Hadi. The case was particularly horrific: el Hadi’s father shot her four times, then ran her body over with the family car. The father reportedly buried her with the complicity of the police in the area. Her crime? Wanting to study in the school of her choice.
The abuse was picked up on social media and many Sudanese signed a petition to call for the authorities to act on el-Hadi’s behalf, which SEEMA presented to the attorney general.
Part of the social media campaign was to ensure that this extreme case was told, and not relegated to ‘fake news’, as some initially believed.
“It’s also about getting the official information about the case that helps to break the silence and make people think differently about what is happening in society,” says Jibrallah.
Even once the petition was handed in, people continued signing.
“It’s not about submitting it, it’s about taking a stand. It represents a commitment and [shows] how people are angry about what’s happening,” she adds.
How it started
The veteran human rights advocate began her career as a chemist. But human rights, especially concerning women, have always been part of her life. Active in student politics, she graduated from university just as Omar al-Bashir took control of Sudan in a coup d’état.
Her ongoing activism and subsequent detentions cost her her job, but also set her on her current path. While working as a technical advisor for six years preventing Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), Jibrallah started hearing repeatedly about violence; she began to help, privately.
“I focused on the violence and the problem of providing services to the victims. I realised that violence is a part of the focus of many organisations, but there was no single entity that was only dealing with violence against women,” she says.
In 2008 she founded SEEMA, whose name is an amalgamation of the first letters of her first cases. The “S” was a 10-year-old girl who was raped by her father.
“I responded by having a friend do the legal aid, and with my personal relations, had others conduct medical interventions,” she says.
She touches her hair, cut in a long bob, absentmindedly, as she recounts the case of the ‘A’, a tea-seller who had been beaten by her husband.
“I supported her to get a divorce and medical treatment for the injuries she sustained from the beating. It’s one of our success stories, because we succeeded in getting her back to university,” she says with a smile.
Another case involved a student from out of town who was brutally raped by a stranger in the street in Khartoum. With the help of SEEMA, the perpetrator was jailed, the girl finished her studies and is now a social worker in the capital.
Since 2008, SEEMA has treated thousands of women and children, despite the previous regime detaining staff, and even Jibrallah herself. She spent two months in prison in 2018, before receiving a human rights award for her work from the European Union later that year.
Danger in Darfur
A young woman in black hijab arrives at the office with a man; she introduces him as her brother, Swigan*. They have come from Darfur, the restive state in western Sudan where, in 2003, the Bashir regime and security forces began a policy of ethnic cleansing, committing what the UN has called war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Swigan and his sister Indi* found refuge from the fighting in neighboring Chad with their family, but she couldn’t flee the abuse from family members.
Swigan gives the exact time and date for the worst day that Indi faced when men, elders, chiefs, used the excuse of “tradition” to do what they wanted.
“This is not the real tradition–things have been changing very fast over the past 20 years, and they have been making new traditions, they do whatever they want, and they do it forcibly,” says Swigan.
He described a number of situations where rape and abuse, and even murder, are carried out with impunity, not by Rapid Support Forces, the Sudan security troops accused of murder in Darfur, but by family members.
After years of abuse, “if a woman kills her husband by poisoning him, for example, instead of taking her to the police, they will cut a big tree in the middle of nowhere, tie her to it, and leave her there under the sun,” the young man explains.
“It’s a secretive state–they are worse than the government,” he says, adding that hierarchy within his own Zaghowa tribe protect the male perpetrators. If the police are called, they are told the person has left, or they have the wrong information, he adds.
“The worst type of violence in Darfur is when a 70-year-old man marries an 18-year-old girl without her consent; it’s only the father and the groom that decide,” he says.
“They don’t let you fully survive,” his sister continues. I just came from being subjected to violence, and I’m still undergoing treatment. If I use my real name, I’ll face retaliation,” she adds.
Breaking the silence
While SEEMA has been providing services to women and children for more than 10 years, the stigma of abuse, especially when it’s a family member, prevents many victims from coming forward.
“Breaking the silence on the issue encourages people to come out and report, and talk about it,” says Jibrallah, adding that there is not enough awareness about an individual’s rights and the laws that protect them.
People are slowly coming forward to report violence, particularly since the Sudanese uprising two years ago and the overthrow of Omar al-Bashir. Bringing cases of abuse to court is important, but stronger laws on human rights and protecting women and children is key, she says.
As police complicity in the el-Hadi case showed, there also needs to be stronger law enforcement to protect women and children.
Tools needed for change
Jibrallah is on the front line in dealing with gender violence, but she’s also part of a team of experts working on changing Sudanese family law to better protect the rights of women and children.
“Of course, a law by itself will not enact change, but it’s one of the tools. Reaching justice is very important for victims and for the prevention of other crimes, but it has to be part of the package –including raising awareness, capacity building, and building mechanisms, among other things,” she says.
Since the fall of the Bashir regime, she has a freer hand.
“Before the revolution we weren’t allowed to have branches outside Khartoum, because the previous regime wouldn’t allow it–they were controlling civil society work,” says Jibrallah.
The women’s advocate and trailbrazer is now looking for space to set up similar centres in other parts of the country.
Ultimately, her goal is to create shelters for abused women and children, to create a safe space for women and children who have no place to go.
*Names have been changed for security reasons