Interview with Nisreen Elsaim: Human rights endangered by the war in Sudan

4 August 2023

Nisreen Elsaim is a young Sudanese leader, the Chair of the Sudan Youth Organization for Climate Change and a member of the Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change at the United Nations Secretariat. She is passionate about climate change and environmental governance. She holds a Master of Science degree in Renewable Energy from the University of Khartoum. Currently, she is actively engaged in advocating for peace, social democracy, justice, and human rights.


  • Sudan is currently going through a war. Could you provide an overview of this extremely concerning situation? What is the historical background of these conflicts?

The media report that what Sudan is going through is a civil war. In reality, this is not the case: the origins of this war date back to 2003 with the previous dictatorial government. The latter, which supported terrorism, created a militia within the army to carry out actions that the army could not do itself. This militia included nearly 20,000 fighters from various regions: Sudan, Central Africa, Niger, Chad… Over the years, they have grown in stature and now aspire to claim power. Over the years, the militia has grown and now aspires to claim power. It has therefore turned against the body that originally created it.

At the start of their uprising, especially in the early days, the militiamen targeted military areas, houses and buildings. But as looting and warfare progressed, they began to target civilians more and more. Unfortunately, the Sudanese army gradually ran out of infantry. All ground military units came from the militia. The only way to put down this uprising was to call in the air force. In general, the air force targeted the areas and neighborhoods where the militiamen were camped. However, there was often collateral damage, with the air force inadvertently destroying homes, neighborhoods and businesses.

As a result, the people of Sudan, and in particular those living in conflict zones, are being killed by militiamen or air force bombardments, or are dying of hunger or lack of medicines because they are confined to their homes. People are suffering from multiple shortages, including a shortage of medicines due to the war.


  • To what extent are women and girls particularly threatened during this period of conflict?

Originally, when the previous dictatorial government was in power, women and girls were particularly targeted by the regime’s restrictive measures. For example, they risked imprisonment if they walked down the street wearing pants. The law allowed police officers to determine whether the women and girls’ outfits were appropriate or offensive. Nevertheless, in December 2018, it was women and girls who began the first march against dictatorship. In 2019, the Sudanese revolution began. In the same year, the dictatorship was overthrown and a civilian government installed. A period of transition then began. Unfortunately, before the end of this period, in October 2021, a coup d’état against the new government was carried out, creating new problems of insecurity.

And as with every episode of insecurity, women were the first targets.

First, females were kidnapped. All ages are targeted. They were enslaved and forced to do the soldiers’ household chores, or were used as sexual slaves and sold in markets. Some of them managed to escape and denounced the inhuman situations they had been subjected to, while others died. In areas where the militia are present, women’s bodies litter the streets. Survivors who have moved to safer areas are faced with sanitary problems: they have no access to pads during their periods because, like shampoo or cream, this product is not considered a survival necessity. Women’s situations thus vary widely.

The militia then prevented them from going to hospital. For example, a pregnant Sudanese woman tried to go to a clinic with her father to give birth. The militia opened fire on her, and she lost her life before reaching the hospital. Her surviving baby was born an orphan.

Then, the army proceeds with a general mobilization of civilians. Both men and women are forced to join the ranks. Many of them do not want to fight or have no experience in combat and handling weapons. Until now in Sudan, women could be police officers but not military personnel.


  • What is your outlook on the future course of events?

Negotiations are ongoing, but they do not appear promising. If the hostilities were to cease now, significant problems would persist.

Firstly, when the war broke out, 31,000 criminals regained their freedom and are now roaming the streets. The prisons had been opened because there was no water, electricity, or food. Some penitentiaries had also been attacked.

Secondly, there are widespread looting incidents. Organized gangs have stolen a large amount of goods from stores. They have also seized a warehouse containing a significant number of weapons. As a result, they are heavily armed, leading to a high level of violence during clashes. There is, therefore, a security problem and attacks on property: power plants, hospitals, schools, and water treatment facilities have been destroyed. This will require extensive repairs and efforts to restore order.

The last challenge is of a political nature: at the end of the war, the regime that will remain in power will probably be military in nature, hence authoritarian and aggressive, claiming to maintain peace and security.


  • What recommendations would you like to offer to individuals wishing to donate or take action in response to what is happening in Sudan?

Sudan is now highly divided. All sectors are weakened. Civilians lack everything: medicines, shelters, sanitary protections for women…

Donors can intervene in multiple ways, provided they go through trusted channels like NGOs, and definitely not through the Sudanese government.

Moreover, since the international community remains silent about this war, it is crucial to speak up and make known what is happening here.


  • What message would you like to convey to the international actors such as non-governmental organizations and governments?

I want to let the international community know that what is happening in Sudan is unacceptable. Generally, when a state enters into war, humanitarian organizations are deployed on the ground. In the case of Sudan, they remain stuck outside the borders, and no action is taken. Local organizations refuse to provide concrete assistance, claiming to already work with their existing partners.

I also deplore the media neglect of the war in Sudan. There is a certain form of racism at play here: the common belief portrays Africa as a continent where wars are commonplace and occur regularly. This is not true.

It is also important to take measures in favor of the youth. Many of them have lost their jobs or had to interrupt their studies. They cannot sustainably rely on social assistance. It would be relevant to create partnerships with universities or for neighboring countries to allow them to find employment remotely.


  • Nisreen Elsaim, you were the winner of the Marianne initiative for human rights defenders in March 2022. In your opinion, to what extent is a commitment to human rights also a feminist commitment?

Clearly, women represent more than half of humanity and are, therefore, included in the concept of human rights. However, in reality, issues related to women are often considered secondary.

For example, in Sudan, women were the catalysts of the Revolution. Yet, when it came to the composition of the government, they only constituted 15% of the political body and were accused of diverting attention from more important matters.

Women face barriers in making their voices heard.

As for me, I am deeply concerned about environmental rights. Nowadays, there is an increasing number of reports on climate issues, but none of them address the consequences of war on the environment.


  • One word to conclude ?

People often approach wars from a quantitative perspective. In reality, it’s not about the number of victims, but about the lives of individuals. One death often means seven family members in mourning, losing a mother, a father, a brother… We live in a community where protection and support are crucial. When a girl experiences rape, it traumatizes an entire family. She and her loved ones may never be able to lead a normal life, especially because stories of rape victims are often difficult for society to accept.

Real lives are at risk in Sudan, disturbed and taken away by this war.

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