Doctor Sara sits in a pharmacy in one of Omdurman's neighborhoods, not far from Ahfad's University for Women. She interacts with people every few minutes, asks about their problems, takes the doctors prescription, hands them the requested medicine…. She makes jokes with her patients and giggles when they are nervous or exhausted. The young pharmacist is also an activist, she is interested in issues that affect our lives, issues that affect women.
When I talked to her friends at the clinic where the pharmacy was located about sexual harassment, they laughed and called such matters "Sara's issues", they are really her issues. Sara documents stories of sexual harassment in her head, taking mental notes and carrying out in-depth interviews with the women she meets on a daily basis. She said she wants to do so much more, but she has little time. I told her I will go with her, we could go undercover to one of the factories where biscuits are made and uncover the sexual harassment there. We agreed to wear torn tours and to gain the trust of the women there before we collect their stories.
We had many cups of juice today and sweet tea in her pharmacy and later inside the clinic where she told me many stories she documented. I took down many notes, almost filling my notebook.
Story one: "Everyday, a different one picks me"
Fathia* came to Sara a year ago. A 40 year old women who was working at one of the factories. She complained about "pain in her stomach".
Sara: she told me , there is something moving inside my stomach. After a few questions, I transferred her to a specialist in the clinic .
This is where Fathia's story began with Sara and Sara's stories began with women and men working in factories. She became curious about them, asking around, what happens to them? is the sexual harassment really that bad there?
Fathia's father remains unknown, but we know for sure that he does not live in Khartoum state. Her mother died and Fathia now lives with her mother's husband who is referred to as "Uncle- AlKhal". She told the doctor that he is a "women thief" and he comes at night. She didn't speak clearly about him, but it is clear that she was the victim of abuses within the family, did the "Khal" sleep with her? Is it possible that Fathia, from a simple family and uneducated, is even aware and is able to comprehend what has happened to her.
Fathia works at a factory and factories are the site of grave cases of sexual harassment .
Sara: I asked a young boy who just took his high school examination about the factories… he comes by every now and then. I asked him because during the summer breaks, he does menial jobs including working in factories. He told me, innocently "ya Dr. don't remind me if I remember, I will not feel well…these people live together like they are married, they don't even shower after that, she told me…laughing at his sheer innocence.
Sara wondered what could have happened to this young man. young boys are usually at risk of sexual harassment just like women, especially in poverty and oppressive situations and the lack of awareness that plagues our society
When the doctor examined Fathia he found her 10 weeks pregnant.
He asked: are you married? Who does the baby belong to?
Even Sara spoke to her, and she told her I don't know who the father is..they are a lot.
"Everyday, a different one picks me," said Fathia, putting it simply.
Working in factories happens in shifts, there is the scary shift which is 8 pm to 8 am. It remains unclear whether all factories offer a private place for women workers to rest …and if there is supervision especially at night when the shift has less people and generally, more men than women.
Fathia wanted an abortion, in her lack of awareness, it was clear that the harassment she was subjected to from "Al-Khal" made her confused and a target for further exploitation.
Fathia vanished and didn't come back to Sara…
Sara: did she abort the baby? What did "the khal" do? Did she leave to a faraway place to raise the baby somewhere where none knows her?
Sara continues to wonder and so did I.
Story Two: "this factory is suspicious"
When the doctor began investigation the kind of sexual harassment happening to women at factories, she discovered dark secrets..to some, factories are like "houses for prostitutes"
Sara: there was a lady I spoke to, she said that biscuit and sweets factories are the worst with high rates of sexual harassment and sexual exploitation….but one factory (hint: it does not make biscuits or sweets) is looked at as :suspicious".
This factory hires girls according to "physical traits"..in other words..they want pretty girls with nice bodies…the girl who works there is considered "a slut"…and in the society of factories and factory-workers, this is a known fact.
In Sudan, people gossip about such issues, but are silent about taking action, but then again, the society will blame girls working there….
"Why are they working there if they don't accept what happens to them," they will say…
So many girls working in the factories are "day-by-day workers", in other words, they earn money on a daily basis and many are living in crippling poverty even to the standards of a third world country.
The need to make a living makes a woman go everyday and work long hours and shut her mouth when she is subjected to sexual harassment….
On the public transportation on the way back to her house, she is thinking about what to do to stop this exploitation without getting fired…there are so many unemployed people, if they fire a woman, they won't have a hard time finding another woman…it is a vicious cycle of never-ending abuse…
Economic and social conditions force women to tolerate a lot, they always say that poverty knows no dignity. They ask why the girls are silent, do they accept it?
I assure you, silence is not "a sign of acceptance"…in this case, it is a sign of the quiet daily struggle to eat.
Story Three: My daughter is fine, she has no problem
Dr.Sara told me a rape story…as usual in Sudan, the victim of rape is a little girl. Rapping children has become nothing short of an epidemic, fast-spreading and as a society, with our lack of awareness and our fear of "the scandal and the fact that your girl will be shamed into spinsterhood", we find ourselves implicated in this crime.
Because ya 3mo, your daughter is not fine and she does have a problem..
Lets take our heads out of the sand and listen…
Sara: I saw the girl as she was crying and screaming, her mother was trying to force her out of the raksha and into the clinic (which the pharmacy is part of)
The mother in all honesty told the doctor, my daughter has vaginal secretions
The doctor was astonished…"your daughter is 6 years old, this can not happen..I will examine here."
The girl was made to lie down and the doctor began examining her, it was not even a thorough examination because it was clear, the crime scene was evident. She was "open" and there were signs that she had been engaged in sexual intercourse for over a year.
The mother didn't know what happened to her daughter and the doctor could not tell her so she does not panic and leave.
"Madam does your girl play in the streets a lot," asked the doctor
"No, she doesn't leave the house," said the mother.
"Do you have youth in the house, who else is staying besides you and her father," asked the doctor, attempting to reveal the criminal, the rapist.
"Her uncles, my husband's two brothers are here with us, they are studying at the university," answered the mother, in all innocence.
At that moment, I remembered the statistics that reveal that 80% of sexual harassment and rape cases happen within someone's house..I've heard about the woman who killed her brother for rapping her baby…and the girl who did …everything…with her uncle who lives with them.
The problem is not the fact that Sudanese people are kind and they open their houses to their families. The problem is that "family are supposed to be good", they are not supposed to subject you to this harassment…Don't they said that " العز اهل"
The problem is we don't supervise our youth and understand the problems that result from the oppression they live in…
The problem is that the mother of the child after she was taken to another doctor...switched off her phone and when the doctor called on the cellphone of the girl's father, he told her "my daughter is fine and she has no problem" and hung up.
The problem is..the girl will grow up and understand what has happened to her and will hate her family who failed to change her reality even when they knew.
Are her uncles still staying with them? Was she physically treated..at-least?
Story Four: My friend did not die from a scorpion, she died from a doctor
When I was sitting with Dr. Sara, a doctor from the clinic passed by and listened to our conversation….. She then said that the ladies inside the clinic's lab are discussing similar stories. She asked us to come and went with her to listen.
A young doctor who works at one of Omdurman's hospitals said that:
"We had an Ethiopian domestic worker for three years, all of a sudden, her health deteriorated and she became very tired, I took her to the clinic for some tests, there was nothing strange. Then one day, she came up to me and said: I want to test my urine". I was trying to understand so I kept asking her questions."
She said "I stopped getting my period and I wanted to know if I am pregnant
I got her the pregnancy test and we did it at home. It was positive, she was pregnant.
I told her, "your husband and children are in Ethiopia and you need a man…how did this happen, you are only here or at the other house with your friends."
She found out that the lady got to know the mechanic whose shop is a few steps away from their house and instead of going to the Ethiopian house to see her friends, she went to Thawra - Hara 29 and she stayed with him on weekends.
The doctor remembered: she came to me after that and asked to borrow money, 300 pounds to be exact , when I asked why, she said she wants an abortion.
I told her: where will u have it?
"There is an Ethiopian doctor with a Sudanese lady assistant in Om-bada," she told her.
"How did you find him?" I asked
"He did the surgery for "-----"," She answered
"Isn't she your friend who was stung by a scorpio and died"
"She was not stung by a scorpio, she died at his clinic" she answered.
The woman came to Sudan to work and send her family back a decent amount of money, this pregnancy simply ruins her plan…
1) she has no family to baby-sit this baby
2) how will she take back the baby to Ethiopia?
She was ready to try her luck with the doctor in Ombada, women go to him for a way out of their problems, he lets them out of their misery once and for all…She could die..
The woman disappeared.
The doctor spoke to her a few months ago and she told her that she is now a tea-lady.
Is the baby with her? Is she raising him? Did she tell his father?
The doctor wanted to confront he "father".
"He could easily…deny it…deny her and deny everything, it will be his word against hers"