NAIROBI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When public protests erupted in Sudan over the rising cost of bread almost two months ago, women’s rights activist Hala Al-Karib did not hesitate to join the masses on the streets defying the security forces to voice their anger.
Economic hardships, including soaring inflation, limits on bank withdrawals and fuel shortages, have taken a heavy toll on Sudan’s 40 million people - and protesters are demanding President Omar al-Bashir step down after three decades in power.
But for Al-Karib and many women risking their lives on frontlines of these protests - the most sustained challenge to al-Bashir since he took power in 1989 - a change in government means more than just economic prosperity.
“The price of bread was a trigger for protests, but it’s not about bread, it’s about equality. It’s about dignity, it’s about freedom,” said Al-Karib, regional director of the Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa in Khartoum.
“The government has an Islamic militant ideology which at its core aims to exclude women from the public space. For 30 years, women in Sudan have fought against this oppression, so it’s no surprise they are out in significant numbers now.”
From students and academics to housewives and street traders, women from all sections of society are demonstrating, she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, adding that the scale of female participation in the protests has been unprecedented.
Sudanese women face a barrage of threats, from child marriage to domestic violence and rape. One in three women are married before 18, while nine out of 10 have undergone female genital mutilation (FGM), the United Nations (U.N.) says.
Yet there are few policies in place to protect women and girls. Marital rape and child marriage, for example, are not considered crimes in the predominately Muslim African nation.
Islamic law in Sudan allows for the marriage of a girl once she hits puberty. It also says a 10-year-old girl can be married by their guardian with the permission of a judge.
Sudan’s record on women’s rights was pushed into the global spotlight in May last year after teenager Noura Hussein was sentenced to death for killing her husband as he tried to rape her - despite being a child bride and acting in self-defense.
Her case drew international condemnation - including an online petition with more than 1.5 million signatures appealing for clemency - and her death sentence was later commuted to a five-year jail term.
Women’s rights groups, as well as the U.N., also point to Sudan’s public order laws which regulate women’s freedom of dress, movement, association, work and study.
These “morality laws” have for years been used to oppress women including activists, students and street vendors - with punishments ranging from floggings to imprisonment, they say.
“We cannot go about our daily lives in freedom and without fear,” said Wini Omer, a Sudanese journalist and activist who was arrested in February last year and charged with prostitution for having a meeting with two men and one woman.
“These morality laws are used arbitrarily to criminalize women. We can be flogged or jailed for not having our hair covered or for wearing trousers,” said Omer, who is currently living in Britain.
Thousands of women have been sentenced to flogging as a result of prosecution under the public order law, according to No to Women’s Oppression Initiative, a campaign group in Sudan.
Sudan is also one of a handful of countries not to have signed the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), a key global treaty aimed at ending gender violence.
“Sudan’s ruling elite has a very outdated, conservative interpretation of Islam and enforce a very strict version of sharia which gives very harsh punishments, especially to women,” said Ahmed Elzobier, Sudan researcher for Amnesty International.
“The government is very hesitant to sign CEDAW as it goes against their ideology. But Sudanese women are very aware of their role as agents of change which is why we are seeing them come out in these protests.”
Since the latest wave of demonstrations began on Dec. 19, students, activists, teachers, doctors and others have held almost daily protests across Sudan.
In some cities, security forces have responded with tear gas and witnesses have reported the use of live ammunition.
Rights groups say at least 45 people have been killed and more than 1,000 detained during clashes with riot police. The government puts the death toll at 30.
Despite this, the protests continue with thousands of women, from both rural and urban areas, taking an active role.
Videos posted on social media show women from Port Sudan in the east to the capital Khartoum dressed in headscarves, marching and chanting, clapping and singing songs. Some clips show women prisoners protesting in jails, while others show school girls.
“In some protests I have been to there are more women than men. Some are marching, others are serving tea to the protesters,” said a 32-year-old female activist in Khartoum, who did not want to be identified.
“Even those women who cannot leave their homes are helping to shelter people being dispersed by police. Grandmothers who cannot march are standing outside their homes and banging pots and pans to motivate protesters.”
But the response has been severe, say human rights groups.
Scores of women have been detained - including many women’s rights activists - and female protesters have been beaten and verbally abused and called prostitutes by the security forces, said Amnesty International.
Human Rights Watch said it has received reports of women demonstrators being groped and threatened with rape by pro-government militias.
Officials at the Sudanese embassy in Nairobi did not respond to requests for comment on the allegations against the security forces.
Women protesters like Al-Karib are defiant that the demonstrations will continue.
“I am very hopeful and I haven’t been this hopeful before. There is such a strong demand for change and, as women, we have played a very strong role in opposing this regime,” she said.
“There’s no turning back now.”
Reporting by Nita Bhalla @nitabhalla, Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org