The victims of mass rape need our help

Observations on Darfur

Saida Abdukarim was eight months pregnant and tending her vegetables when she was raped and beaten by men who told her: "You are black, so we can rape you." As the blows rained down she crouched to protect her unborn baby. The baby is still alive. She, however, is unable to walk.

Her story, recorded by the journalist Nicholas Kristof, is not unique or even unusual. In Darfur, where close to 400,000 have died in a government-sponsored programme of ethnic cleansing, rape is a weapon used to break the will of communities, weaken tribal ties and humiliate people to the point where they abandon their land.

Every day women in Darfur risk rape and assault when they leave their homes to find food or firewood - even though the international community claims it is protecting them. And if they survive an attack their prospects are still bleak. Many have seen their villages burned and their male relatives killed; they must walk for days to refugee camps, through baking heat and dust storms, carrying their children. Here, instead of finding safety and comfort, they must build their own shelters - and they are still vulnerable to attack.

No one knows how many women are raped because their society shames the victims into silence. Until a few weeks ago, women who sought medical help after being raped were arrested by the Sudanese security forces. (The arrests stopped when the international community complained, proving we can make a difference when we bother.)

We haven't heard much about Darfur recently. The killing and raping continue, but the regime in Khartoum has changed tactics. It has achieved its racist aim: 90 per cent of the black African villages have been destroyed. So now it is using its proxies, the Janjaweed militia, to rape women whenever they venture out for firewood. The international community, it calculates, is not going to cause a fuss over the suffering of women who cannot bear to talk about their ordeal.

Is this what innocent women and children deserve? Is this the best we can do for them?

The United Nations has repeatedly refused to send peacekeepers to Darfur. However, there are other steps we can take. We could send policewomen from African nations to accompany the firewood-gathering trips - civilian police would not represent the challenge to Sudanese sovereignty that soldiers would. We could provide fuel-efficient stoves so less firewood is needed. We could vastly increase the number of African Union monitors, to deter the rapists. We could provide rape counselling and a chance to break the taboo of silence. We could increase treatment for sexually transmitted diseases.

If we don't act now Darfur will have a generation of women who are either unable to have children because of infection or physical damage or who have been raped and got pregnant and so must live with the stigma all their lives, unable to get married.

Action requires political will, and so far this has been lacking. But we must keep the pressure on. We must shame the UN, the European Commission and our own governments into doing something. Kofi Annan described Darfur as "little short of hell on earth". It is time to end that hell, for Saida and the thousands like her.