Amina Koko sits a little easier on the sturdy-but-rusty coffee tin that she uses daily as a stool, serving traditional Sudanese tea to the public in southern Khartoum. Koko can now carry out her business in relative peace. Late last month, Sudan’s new government repealed the infamous Public Order Law that largely targeted poor women as a state profit-making scheme rather than upholds morality as its proponents claimed. “They took my tea equipment during one of their raids, property I could not buy back easily,” Koko told Ayin. Police on orders from the Public Order Courts raided Koko’s small tea making area five times, she said, making it nearly impossible to eke out a living.
“It’s a new day, we thank the justice minister and civilian government,” said Awadia Koko, the head of the food and tea makers association in Khartoum. “We were subject to too much violence under the Public Order Law, we were tired of the insults, fines, humiliation and even killings associated with the law,” she added.
The repeal of the Public Order Law is certainly a positive step, several women’s rights activists told Ayin, but it is only a baby step. According to the same sources, a whole litany of legislation curbing women’s rights in Sudan remains on the books. These regressive laws, says Doctor and human rights activist Amna Sayed Mohamed, were largely introduced during the coup in 1989 that brought the former regime to power. This is one reason why women are actively organising marches demanding their rights since the new government was formed. Just this week and in late November, Sudanese women held two protest marches in Omdurman and Khartoum calling for an end to violence against women. At a press briefing in November, Social Affairs Minister Lina Al-Sheikh praised women participating in political change in Sudan and announced the government’s campaign initiative to end violence against women.
The Public Order Courts started in 1995 under the former ruling National Congress Party government’s Islamic ideology, according to Ahmed Subeir, an advocate and legal advisor to several local civil society organisations. According to the research and advocacy organisation, the Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa (SIHA), the Public Order Law and associate courts provided authorities sweeping powers to arbitrarily control women. Using purposefully vague terms, authorities had power over what women wore, whom they spoke to and where they work. If authorities perceived someone to be an offender, floggings, beating and, most common, exorbitant fines would soon follow.
Target the vulnerable
The Public Order Law had a classist and gender element to it, says Sudanese activist Winnie Omer. “Basically it was designed to chase women from middle to lower class backgrounds, limiting their movement and their ability to make free choices,” Omer told Ayin. “Racism was another element –targeting women and men from marginalised ethnicities.” Underprivileged and vulnerable, these demographics were perfect targets for authorities to exploit through the law.
According to Subeir, the Public Order Law was far less about upholding a moral code than accruing revenue to support the state treasury. Once South Sudan seceded in 2011 and Khartoum lost 75 percent of its oil revenues, the Sudan government started to expand the number of Public Order Courts to aggressively collect lost revenues, Subeir said. Before its repeal, Khartoum City had 22 Public Order Courts alone.
But not all in Sudan condemn the law. Kanda Gaboosh, a member of the Sudanese Scholars Association is a proponent of the Public Order Law and believes it needed amendments, not abolishment. “The law of Public Order is good for the community, it organised it,” Gaboosh said. “The problem is not the law itself but the way of its implementation by some police, which is wrong.” Gaboosh fears the laws total abolishment rather than amendments, will create deviation within the community.
Based on a 2017 SIHA survey and court documents, Ayin estimated that the Public Order Courts earned through fines roughly 135 million Sudanese Pounds (roughly US$ 6,750,000) per year –almost as much as the entire Khartoum State health budget of 145 million Sudanese Pounds (roughly US$ 7,250,000). “Court revenues have become more important than justice itself,” Subeir said.
Death in the Nile
But in some cases, authorities punished the public via the Public Order Law in much worse ways than fines. In October 2015, the police under orders by the public order court raided the Un Dom area of East Nile, Khartoum on suspicion of people brewing illegal alcohol. Marginalised people from the Nuba community were predominantly living in the neighbourhood, Otoro Chief Abdalla Albeen Angelo said. The Chief told Ayin police raided their area shooting in the air and people fled towards the Nile to escape them. An eyewitness, Salwa Hussam, said people ran from the police, leaping into the rushing Nile waters to escape and drowning in the process. Five people died that day –including a six-year-old girl, Royeena, she added while holding a banner printed at the time to commemorate and protest their deaths. Even after this incident police would return to repeatedly raid the area, Hussam added. Albeen says they tried on several occasions to take the perpetrators to court but nothing came of it. “We are waiting for the new government to re-open the case,” he said. “The dismantling of the Public Order Law is a very good step,” he added, “ but the new government needs to dismantle every law that is against the people and their freedom.”
First steps of many
Amna Sayed agrees. “It’s a good start but there is a lot more to be done to in terms of law reform.” For a start, the Public Order Law is a state law, not federal, and only applies to Khartoum and Gedaref States. Sudanese women activists like Amna Sayed and Winnie Omer believe other laws still on the books, such as clauses within the 1991 Criminal Law, are actually worse than the repealed Public Order statute. “The real problem is the Sudanese criminal law, women were arrested under articles like 152 (indecent dress), 154 (practising prostitution),” Omer said, claiming women were often charged under the law with no actual justification. “The laws are interchangeable so basically nothing has changed,” Omer added. Other laws such as the Family Law prevent women from signing any document for their children if divorced. The Personal Status Law legalises child marriage from the age of ten.
Sudan is one of only two African countries that is not a signatory to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). The treaty safeguards the rights of women by obliging party-states to eliminate gender-based discrimination. Sudan is also one of nine African countries that have signed but not ratified the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa, better known as the Maputo Protocol. “If the transitional government hopes to maintain the support of the women’s movement – a movement which played an instrumental role in ending the Bashir regime – it must fulfil its promises to Sudanese women by (making) the policy changes necessary to bring Sudanese laws fully into harmony with CEDAW and the Maputo Protocol,” SIHA said in a statement released on International Human Rights Day, 10 December.
Despite the need for local law reform and international ratifications, Amna Sayed remains hopeful that Sudanese women’s rights will improve in the future for one key reason: women in Sudan are emboldened. The toppling of former dictator Omar Al-Bashir in April provided the revolutionary movement with the courage to speak out for their rights, including those of women. “Women are talking more in Sudan, whether it’s discussing politics while in the salon or through social media groups to set up protests,” Mohamed said. Last Tuesday, the No Oppression Against Women Initiative called on the Sovereign Council to include women in the peace process, especially displaced women and war victims. Initiatives such as this one are growing in momentum. “The repeal of the Public Order Law is just the beginning,” Sayed said.