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Where marital rape is legal: Sudanese teen's death sentence fuels wider fight

Noura Hussein's case has attracted global attention, but Sudanese rights campaigners say problems for women in their country are widespread
'We will never let her face this fate alone,' says Sudanese rights campaigner (AFP)

OMDURMAN, Sudan – In Sudan, a story of forced marriage, marital rape and murder has shone a spotlight on the country's personal status law and the vulnerabilities women and girls face every day.

The case of Noura Hussein, sentenced to death earlier this month for killing her husband and alleged rapist, has drawn attention and criticism worldwide.

I accept this verdict proudly and bravely. If this is the justice of the human being, I prefer to die than to continue in such unfair life

- Noura Hussein

On Friday, the UN said it was "acutely concerned" for Hussein and warned that her trial did not appear to have been fair.

But the case of the 19-year-old, who says her husband's relatives held her down as he raped her, is in no way unique in the East African country.

European Union diplomatic missions in Khartoum have also expressed extreme concern over the death sentence verdict against Hussein.

"Sudan is the only country in the region that legitimises child marriage and marital rape," Amira Osman, secretary-general of rights coalition "No to Women’s Oppression," told Middle East Eye.

"This is why we would like to take this chance of Noura's case to reflect the suffering of the Sudanese woman."

Untold stories

As an angry campaign sweeps Sudan protesting against Hussein's sentence, similar stories are emerging.

Nahid Jabrallah, director of the Sima Centre for Training and Protection of Women and Children's Rights in Khartoum, said marital rape cases like those involving Hussein are typical in Sudan and something the centre sees regularly.

She pointed to the case of a girl who killed her husband, an older man, after being repeatedly raped by him.

The girl, who hails from a small village just outside of Khartoum, is serving a prison sentence, but narrowly avoided capital punishment due to being under the age of 18.

Jabrallah, a prominent human rights activist, highlighted another case, which she described as typical, of a woman who was raped by her husband, a local religious leader.

The husband used his followers to hold the woman down, Jabrallah said, before raping her.

"The young woman ... even received medical treatment in a public hospital without the police opening a case," she added.   

Jabrallah told MEE that the low value placed on the lives of Sudanese women is encouraged by laws rooted in religious conservatism which do not criminalise child marriage or marital rape and make women's lives extremely difficult.

The activist said that marital rape in Sudan is a common occurrence, but Hussein's case has come as a shock to Sudanese society as most victims' voices go unheard under the pressure of social stigma.

Activists only found the confidence to speak out for Hussein and other similar cases after her story went viral with the help of local and international human rights groups. 

The Sudanese Gender Centre rights group, based in Khartoum, has used the awareness from Hussein's case to highlight the case of one newly wed woman whose husband raped her with a knife.

The young woman, who like all other women profiled by MEE wished to remain anonymous, said that her husband's mother and sister restrained her while the husband used the weapon on her.

According to the group, the woman then attempted to report the case at a police station in Khartoum, only for the policemen to hand her back to her immediate family in 2015.

Endangered by law

Activists campaigning against Hussein's sentence put the blame squarely on Sudan's personal status law, which they have been protesting against for years.

Passed in 1991, the Personal Status of Muslims Act allows the marriage of girls and boys as young as 10 – the lowest legal marrying age in Africa - as long as a judge permits it.

Under Sudanese law, the minimum age of sexual consent is 18. However, the country's penal code exempts spouses from being charged for sex with a minor within marriage.

Sudan has not signed the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, an "international bill of rights for women" which the UN General Assembly adopted in 1979, and rights groups have long complained there are insufficient policies in place to protect them.

The laws have significant consequences for Sudanese women and children: more than a third of women in Sudan were married before they turned 18, according to a 2010 government survey. In the country's poorest households, more than half of women were married as teenagers, and in southern Sudan's Blue Nile state, 19 percent of women are married before 15, according to the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

At 165 out of 188 countries, Sudan currently ranks at the bottom of the UN Gender Equality Index, which tracks parity between men and women in political participation and access to employment, healthcare and education.

Activists who have been pushing for changes to the laws for years say Noura Hussein's case, which has attracted attention from right groups around the globe sharing the #JusticeForNoura hashtag, has kicked their protest into high gear.

'A real icon'

Amira Osman, the women's rights advocate with the No to Women’s Oppression coalition, Sudan's top feminist organisation, denounced the verdict, and said it was scandalous that Sudanese judges and laws could treat women like this.

"Noura has become a real icon of the struggle of the Sudanese woman against these laws, so we will never let her face this fate alone," Osman told MEE, vowing that campaigns against laws oppressing women and children would continue.

Sudanese feminist and legal expert Samia Hashim said that the 19-year-old should be seen as a victim, not a guilty party. Yet while her case has attracted widespread attention, the oppression of women in Sudan is an endemic issue and the personal status law, which she said the current government uses to oppress women, is at the heart of it.

"Marital rape and child marriage are not considered crimes in Sudanese law," she said.

Along with campaigning, Hashim said she hoped Hussein and her lawyers would continue to appeal her sentence as far as the constitutional court if necessary to get justice.

Brave message

Noura Hussein's defence team has confirmed that they will appeal against her death sentence and are confident that the courts will drop her sentence or at least ease the judgement. If necessary, they may raise the case in the constitutional court, said Alimam, Hussein's lead lawyer.

From her jail in Omdurman, the second-largest city in Sudan, Hussein sent a message with activists who visited her that she appreciated her supporters and the campaign that has been launched around her case.

"Thanks for all those who supported me without knowing who I am," Hussein said. "Thanks for those who stood against oppression of the women that were forced into marriage."

According to the activists, Hussein said that she doesn't regret fighting back against her husband's attempt to rape her a second time. From the moment it happened, she said, she knew she would end up in a prison.

"I accept this verdict proudly and bravely," she said. "If this is the justice of the human being, I prefer to die than to continue in such unfair life."