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The Black Army: Sudan’s women on the frontline?

The Black Army: Sudan’s women on the frontline?

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Politics Women’s Rights Marginalized Groups

Tuesday 5 March 202407:46 am
إقرأ باللغة العربية:

"الجيش الأسود"... ما هي قصة "انخراط" النساء في حرب السودان؟


The Black Army, a group of Sudanese women, composed of graduates from the popular military training camps established to train citizens, primarily women, in self-defense and in support of the armed forces in their war against the Rapid Support Forces (RSF).

Early last October, hundreds of women clad in black stood in organized rows as Alya Hassan Abuna, a leader in the Freedom and Change movement's Democratic Bloc (FFC-DB) and head of the Sudan Women's Initiative, announced the graduation of the first batch of women trained to carry weapons at an army camp in Sudan's Red Sea State.

Abuna declared, “We are not here to be behind others or follow them; we, from this moment forward, will be at the forefront of the fight, fighting on the frontlines.”

So why is the army training women? Does Sudan plan to deploy them in the war against the Rapid Support Forces?

Women's mobilization

Months after war erupted between the army and the RSF on April 15, 2023, the army opened training camps for male citizens to learn to handle weapons, an effort in “popular resistance.” Later, the army began to similarly train female citizens, in military training and in carrying and using weapons primarily for self-defense.

Raseef22 visited one such female training camp in Sudan’s Red Sea State, where we met with the camp supervisor, Alya Hassan Abuna. Abuna explained, “I was the first to propose training women to use weapons and for combat. I presented the proposal to the military area commander in the Red Sea State, then to Dr. Gibril Ibrahim, the government's representative in the state, and finally, the proposal was presented to Mr. Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan, head of the Sovereign Council. It was approved, as the prolonged war seems to have no end in sight.” She emphasized that enrolling in one of the camps is voluntary. Many women come on their own terms, in order to learn combat skills and be able to defend themselves.

The Black Army, a group of Sudanese women, composed of graduates from the popular military training camps established to train citizens, primarily women, in self-defense and in support of the armed forces in their war against the RSF. Feminist and political opinion remains divided on this matter.

She continued, “I am pleased with this initiative, which has expanded into many states and now involves thousands of women of various ages, as young as eighteen.” She emphasized that volunteers are subject to strict medical examinations, and women with chronic diseases or with vision problems are unable to enroll.


According to army officials interviewed by Raseef22, training camps for women exist in several states including the River Nile State, Khartoum State, the Northern State, the Red Sea State, Kassala State, Gedaref State, Blue Nile State and White Nile State.

In the face of sexual violence

Female trainees interviewed by Raseef22 admitted to joining camps in order to be able to protect themselves from sexual violence, particularly by members of the RSF. They also expressed their full readiness to fight in the ranks of the armed forces.

The latest report from the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights states that “as of December 15, 2023, at least 118 people (98 women, one man, 18 girls, and one boy) were subjected to sexual violence, including rape, gang rape, and attempted rape, among them 19 children.”

According to the report, several of these incidents “were committed by RSF members, in homes and on the streets,” adding that “one woman was held in a building and repeatedly gangraped” over a period of 35 days. “Only four victims of sexual violence were willing and able to report to the authorities, owing to stigma, distrust of the justice system, the collapse of the institutions of justice and fear of reprisals.”

The report found that in “39 incidents, the perpetrators were identified as men in Rapid Support Forces’ uniforms. In 9 of them, they were armed members affiliated with the Rapid Support Forces, together comprising 83% of the total incidents. In 2 incidents, members of the Sudanese Armed Forces were identified as the perpetrators. Some of these incidents amount to war crimes.”

Officials at the Red Sea women's training camp told Raseef22 that most of the trainees enrolled in the program are displaced women from conflict areas and war zones, especially from Khartoum State, who experienced horrific conditions there. Many women are victims of sexual assault, and joined the camps with a strong desire to train in self-defense. In addition to combat training, female trainees receive lectures on religion, psychology and social issues to aid in recovery from the effects of war and to raise awareness on how to deal with difficult wartime living conditions. Officials hope that these women will share their learnings with other women in their communities.

“The war has intensified the reality of violence against women, with rape, murder, and abduction of women becoming one of its main features. In the absence and failure of the army, Sudanese women find themselves facing the violence of militias and other armies. The majority of women do not have the ability to migrate, so self-defense becomes the only choice.”

Each camp trains thousands of women. Military training includes tutorials on using, assembling, and disassembling weapons, along with martial arts training for self-defense. Training lasts for 45 days, after which the trainee can choose to move on to a second phase of advanced training, including the use of other weapons and direct military combat skills. According to officials, the women's training camp in the North State is preparing to graduate two courses: the first for 1,000 women who have passed the initial training phase, and the second for another 300 who have completed advanced training.

Military roles for the female trainees

In recent weeks, there has been a noticeable rise in military uniform-clad women inspecting female travelers on buses at inspection points near state entrances, alongside other army and security forces. According to Abuna, following the advanced training period, a graduate can be integrated into the army and secure state entrances, inspect and search women, provide medical care to injured soldiers, cook food, and work in service departments, among other tasks. She added, “They are not integrated to fight in direct combat, but should they encounter any problems, they are capable of dealing with them.”

Anahid Sayf al-Din, a member of the Red Sea State camp, shared, “Participating alongside the army in the war taking place in Sudan is a duty, even for women, because it is in defense of the land, the homeland, honor, and money.” She continued, “the RSF are beyond the control of any ruler, and they must be fought against. Women's participation is a duty, just like it was in the days of the Prophet, when women treated the wounded and provided water in wars.” According to the fighter, women are trained to protect themselves from sexual violence, which has affected a large number of kidnapped and missing women. She concluded, “I will bear arms under the banner and supervision of the armed forces because they are responsible for protecting the homeland.”

Training camps are supervised by members of the armed forces. One such supervisor is Major General Essam al-Din Abdullah, who believes that this mobilization is in combat of “injustice and aggression that has befallen this noble country,” adding, “Praise be to God, mobilization efforts have paid off, and men and women are crowding to join the ranks of combat.”

Following Bashir's approach

Despite the response to calls for mobilization launched by the armed forces for both men and women, many believe that it is not the responsibility of civilians to carry weapons and fight. Some argue that calls for mobilization and the summoning of civilians is an extension of the "popular defense" Sudan saw during deposed Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir’s Islamic regime, where girls were recruited for war in the south before its independence, and later in the Darfur region. Some accused the dissolved National Congress Party and previous officials of inaugurating these camps as a step towards returning to power after the end of the war.

“We women are killed, raped, displaced, enslaved, and forced to flee our homes. We then die from oppression, poverty, and disease, and then they demand that we carry weapons. We stand against war as it brings destruction, death, and devastation.”

In this regard, Amira Osman, head of the No to Oppression Against Women initiative and human rights activist, told Raseef22, “We are killed, raped, displaced, enslaved, and forced to flee our homes. We then die from oppression, poverty, and disease, and then they demand that we carry weapons. We, the women of Sudan and citizens of this nation, are caught between the hammer and the anvil.” She added, “We stand against war as it brings destruction, death, and devastation. Those who want us to carry weapons are the ones who supported, nurtured, and trained the RSF. When we chanted, 'No to militia controlling the state,' they killed us to defend it and the authority. When they disagreed amongst themselves, they killed us.” She goes on to emphasize that “women are peacemakers and creators of life, and we have a responsibility to rebuild this country from ruin. In the No to Oppression Against Women initiative, we raised the slogan 'A land without weapons'.”

On the other hand, Hala al-Karb, regional director of the Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa (SIHA), stated, “Sudanese women before the war found themselves in an extremely complex situation. On the one hand, the capabilities of patriarchal authorities to protect women and provide livelihoods in traditional ways have declined, and women have been forced to go out to work on a massive scale. However, this has not been accompanied by social and political change as happened in many countries worldwide that ensures legal and political protection for women.” According to her, Sudan “continued to use outdated legal structures inconsistent with their lived reality, producing a misogynistic and socially hostile situation for women. While the economy and living conditions require women to be present in public life, women face violence and oppression while they are in public spaces.”

Despite the response to calls for mobilization launched by the armed forces for both men and women, many believe that it is not the responsibility of civilians to carry weapons and fight.

According to her, “before the war, the frequency of violence against women in public places within cities escalated frighteningly […] Everyone remembers the attacks on girls' dormitories and rape incidents during protests and during the dispersal of sit-ins. That's why many young women at that time spoke about the necessity of being able to defend themselves.”

As for the training of women in the camps, Al-Karib explained, “The war has intensified the reality of violence against women, with rape, murder, and abduction of women becoming one of its main features. In the absence and failure of the army to fulfill its duties, Sudanese women find themselves facing the violence of militias and other armies […] The majority of women do not have the ability to migrate, so the option of self-defense becomes an understandable choice.”

Al-Karb identifies an important paradox here. While women are subjected to a larger scale of violence in war, they are required to double efforts, to care for and feed their families, and to defend themselves and their children. Despite this, both “political and military elite institutions see women as unqualified to be part of leadership or political and security operations.”

The RSF rejects and condemns

In response to this move, Saleh Al-Bashir Triko, a journalist close to the RSF, tells Raseef22 that the army resorted to training women to carry weapons after “suffering from a significant shortage of fighters in its ranks,” which forced it into “mobilization in its controlled areas and making citizens bear arms, as in areas such as Karary, Al-Thawrat, and Omdurman.”

According to Triko, the RSF condemned this decision and deemed it a ‘violation of women's rights and an endangerment to them,” suggesting that “if the army forces women into fighting against the RSF, the latter will not be able to distinguish between those who carry weapons against them, whether it is a woman or a man, and will respond with equal force to the source of hostile fire. In that case, women will undoubtedly become victims.”

Triko believes that “the RSF do not need to open camps to train women because the number of its fighters, according to the latest internal statistics, exceeds 1.5 million, most of whom are volunteers. They will not resort to recruiting women no matter how long the war lasts. Unlike the army, the fighters of the Rapid Support Forces do not flee from the frontlines of combat.”


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