The risks of being wine makers in Sudan

State government Police Commissioner in the five Darfur states in Sudan, had met with police officers for the third time during the month of May 2015.  The prime objective for...

State government Police Commissioner in the five Darfur states in Sudan, had met with police officers for the third time during the month of May 2015.  The prime objective for these meetings was not to put a plan for responding to increased criminal activities perpetrated by the officially recruited gangs from the neighboring cross border countries, such as Chad, Niger, Mali and the Republic of Central Africa, but to attack, arrest, detain and torture women and girls who are involved in the business of local wine making. In Sudan local wine making is as old as the history of Sudan –it existed even before it converted from Christianity to the current religion, Islam.  Authorities believe that local alcohol is the main underlying cause of high criminality in the region.

Believe it or not, local wine brewing has become a lucrative growing business for women and girls in Darfur because of the increased demand from nomad, usually Arabs, mobilized and recruited by the state from the surrounding countries to work as armed militia.   Whilst the women and girls who brew are financially empowered, they also expose themselves to various forms of violence  perpetrated by the state police, who are all men. These include: sexual exploitation sexual harassment, inhuman degrading treatment, finical abuse, imprisonment and detention.

The police in Darfur is famous for spreading terror among the people, using tactics such as speeding with cars and shooting in the air, especially when they chase wine makers. For this reason, when winemakers learn about the police coming, they sneak away from their homes and scamper in horror, trying to find shelter.   Even if they manage to escape, the state law gives the police the authority to break into the homes of all suspected wine makers and enter into the homes of all suspected women in search for clues.  Some police men use this opportunity to steal any valuables when the women are not there, including the alcohol itself.

When caught red-handed with tangible evidence, women are often beaten and sexually harassed, heavily fined and sent one month prison term.

According to Madam Khajida, 33 years old, who has recently joined the wine business, “only women who failed to establish ongoing communications are vulnerable for arrest”  Khajida, who has been arrested more than 8 times during 2014, tells horrific stories about the degrading treatment women and girls face while in custody.

According to her, experienced women and girls, enjoy protection by bribing the police.  She adds that women and girls who are able to create successful “business” partnerships with the police , are the ones who usually succeed in their careers.  The terms for partnership not only sometimes include equal distribution of wine profits but in some cases they develop into love affairs that take the form of sexual exploitation, because women and girls in such position lack equal power and are vulnerable to their counterparts who abuse and violate human rights laws for advancing their self-interests. In some rare cases, the police send text message to their partners, the wine makers, revealing their movements so that they can pay them thereafter.  It is also believed that women and girls who receive such messages are eligible to pay up to 160 SDG about 20USD for every text message form the mobile devices of the police.

With regard to sexual exploitation targeted at girls during detention or custody, Sumaya Ahmed, 35, shares her experience of when she was arrested for violating  cultural norm by ‘wearing indecently’.  She said she was arrested together with other 20 men and women and locked up in 4×4 meter cell.   Sumaya said that the problem women faced in custody was not an that of overcrowding or gender sensitivity, but that when the police started taking girls out of custody into other separate rooms for “justification of investigations” during the late night hours.  Because such investigations targeted only women and girls, in the absence of the main investigators during late night hours, it was  considered very suspicious.  While Sumaya could not reveal everything for security purposes, it is suspected that police are accustomed to raping women during their detention. Because rape is always under reported for reason of stigma, shyness and fear of revenge, it is always very difficult to verify these types of allegations.

Asked why these women should continue doing the business of wine in spite of suffering all these risks, Sumaya responded that women have no other alternative than these coping mechanisms, because of the rise in criminality and insecurity which make them unable to practice outdoor livelihood activities. This insecurity, according to Sumaya, is caused by the government mobilization of criminals from the neighboring countries being recruited to fight the rebels in the region.  That is why these forces, sometimes referred to as rapid response forces, perpetrate and condone variable forms of criminality and whilst enjoying a certain degree of impunity.   Contrary to this notion, the public, especially the religious leaders and government authorities, attribute increased crime rates to the availability of wine that is considered as the main cause.  They also correlate the increased reduction in the quantity of wine to the reduction of crime rates.

On the other hand, women and girls who are involved in wine business believe the main factor behind increased crime rates is  the collapse of rule of law related institutions and militarization of the police in the context of Darfur. Therefore wine is just a secondary factor, as the crimes would be committed anyways.

Another factor which increases the rate of crime and violation of human rights against women and girls who brew is the gender culture of certain communities in Sudan.  For instance in Sudan, culture determines gender roles, gives men the task of policing and this makes women lose their rights only because of their gender. Many people interviewed believe that if women were to deal with the fight with local brewers, all forms of violence against women connected to wine business would drastically reduce. Women interviewed believe that these crimes are perpetrated because those who are involved in the fight against wine are all men who abuse their power for their own interest.

Hiring policewomen could potentially break this cycle and make a great difference in the fight against women’s rights violations.

For the last five years the UN in Sudan has been advocating with the Sudan government officials for the recruitment of female police.  UN Security Resolution 1325 calls for women’s participation in conflict resolution and integration in all security related forces.  After five years of continued advocacy, with events like the 16 Days  of Activism Against Gender Violence and International Women Day, the Sudanese government has responded for the first time by training and recruiting 400 female police in Darfur.  Although some of these have not been fully absorbed in the police force, this is the beginning of a change.   It is expected that within 5 years female police will make up at least 5 percent of the total police force and the figure will increase based on time and changing the perception of the community on gender roles.

NB: The names used in this article are pseudonims
Sabir Abdalla

Sabir Abdalla is a pseudonim created to protect the identity of the author. He is gender specialist working on issues related to women’s empowerment programs in Sudan. He is also an advocate for women’s protection, women’s human rights in Sudan and his goal is to work to end existing gender inequalities in Sudan.
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