Murder on mobiles in Sudan

Families commit crimes against girls in Darfur for possessing a phone

user icon

Salma Abdel Aziz

clock icon

07 May 2024

This investigation documents the stories of dozens of girls in the Darfur region of Sudan who have been murdered, tortured, or beaten by their families, by their relatives, or by people from the same tribe, because they were found with mobile phones in their possession. We also show that the perpetrators have escaped punishment with help from the heads of the Native Administration (a traditional tribally rooted entity that help govern local affairs and disputes primarily in rural areas), or from the families of the victims, on the pretext that the perpetrator is a family member.

Noura (not her real name) flees barefoot from her brothers who are trying to kill her, because she has a mobile phone on her. She walks for five hours all the way from her home in the Um Tajok in West Darfur State to Kuraynik, sixty kilometres away. There, Noura now lives in the house of the farsha - the tribal leader, also known as “the sheikh,” “the mayor,” and “the overseer” – to whom Noura came seeking protection.

Map showing journey from Um Tajok and Kuraynik

Map showing journey from Um Tajok and Kuraynik

Noura remembers vividly what happened to her: “At six o’clock in the morning, my brothers attacked me. One of them held a weapon and wanted to kill me, because of a phone they found with me. If one of the neighbours hadn’t intervened, I would be dead now.”

This is not the first time that Noura faced threats to her life. In 2022, her two brothers beat her and left her bleeding from deep wounds on her body from one o’clock in the morning until sunrise. But an even deeper wound was the mental one she was left with. And all for the same reason – a phone her mother had bought her. Pointing to the scars on her hand, Noura explains what happened: “My hands were bleeding heavily, but no-one came to save me. In the morning my mother took me to the hospital, where I spent seven days.”

In the city of El Fasher, capital of North Darfur State, it needed careful planning to enable another girl to leave the house where her brother had imprisoned her for two years. With the help of her mother, we met the twenty-three-year-old to talk about why she had been held captive. She said: “In 2020, my brother found me talking on the phone with my friend, so he beat me, leaving deep cuts on my head. I was taken to the hospital, where I stayed for three days.”

That was not the end of this tragic story, and the girl's suffering took another turn. After she returned home from the hospital, her brother effectively put her under siege, stopping her from leaving the house for two whole years. The girl explains what she has been through: “Everyone in my family saw what my brother had done, but they have done nothing to stop him torturing me. For two years no-one has intervened, no-one has done a thing.”

baby symbols

Lack of precise statistics and fear of shame

Noura is lucky compared to dozens of girls in the Darfur region who have been murdered by their families for possessing a phone. Human rights activist Nahla Youssef is head of the Future Development and Enlightenment Organisation. She says that statistics confirmed by her organisation show that eleven girls were killed in 2022 by their immediate families, other relatives, or people from the same tribe just for being “caught” using a mobile phone.

However, Youssef believes that in fact there were more than 80 such murders in 2022, which went unrecorded. She says there are no accurate statistics for this type of crime, because it is hard to reach women in remote villages, so no one finds out about the abuse to which they are subjected.

For human rights activist Nahla Youssef, the reasons behind the killing and torturing of girls for owning or using a phone are “male dominance” and the prevalent belief that women are “private property” and have no freedom to act. Youssef thinks that killing someone for talking on a phone is a phenomenon alien to Darfur society, which needs to be carefully studied and analysed due to its seriousness. But she argues that various types of violence against women and girls are on the increase, and that there is a major flaw in Sudan’s Voluntary and Humanitarian Work Act.

Youssef thinks that the weakness of government institutions dealing with women's rights, most notably the Federal Ministry of Social Welfare, and their failure to carry out their most basic tasks – all of which stems from the flawed policies pursued by the regime of former President Omar Al-Bashir – have contributed to an increase in abuse of women in Sudan.

“If the ministries responsible for social development had adopted laws to deter and criminalise gender-based violence, then no father, brother, or other family member would murder their daughter, sister, or wife, just for talking on a phone,” Youssef argues.

Community researcher Mahjoub Siddiq Mansour believes that “fear of shame” (that is the fear for the honour of the family) is what motivates families to kill girls for owning or using a phone, because they think the girl is talking to men from outside the family. They even think that if one girl has a phone, it means others close to her are accomplices in the “crime”. Mansour says: “If the family finds a girl has a phone they will beat her, even to death, because their overwhelming fear is to be told that, as the girl’s family, they are failing to make her act in a disciplined way, or act as proper guardians for her.”

baby symbols

Reluctance of Native Administration to hand over perpetrators to police

On June 7, 2022, in the village of Harak, southeast of Abu Ajourah in South Darfur State, five girls were killed by ten men from their tribe. The men were acting on the instructions of the tribal “sheikh” who had said “Take them and punish them.” The author of this investigation has obtained a report into the incident by the General Directorate for Women and Children in South Darfur State.

This report states that the five girls were tortured and killed because of a phone call between a young man and one of the victims. She admitted – under duress - that four other girls from the same village had engaged in “illicit” relationships with young men from other tribes. They were then beaten in the sheikh’s house and taken from the village, tied up and left in the sun until nightfall. Four of the girls died immediately, and the fifth died on the way to hospital.

At Abu Ajourah police station, the mother of one of the victims gave information “secretly” – for fear of herself coming to harm – which helped the police arrest the ten defendants and they were all held in Cooper Prison in Nyala also known locally as “Copar” prison.

Magda Hassan Ali, head of the Darfur Women’s Inclusive Stand, says that the Native Administration (a traditional tribally rooted entity that help govern local affairs and disputes primarily in rural areas), is slow in handing over the perpetrators to the police: “All those responsible for the murder of the five girls are from the same family. If the Native Administration had wanted to hand them over, it would have done so, but six of them were able to escape.” Ali goes on to say that the Native Administration later offered to settle the case through mutual agreement by cancelling the police report and waiving the blood money, even though renouncing the right to retribution does not cancel the public right to justice.

The Native Administration

The administration by tribal leaders of the affairs of their tribal regions. This administration comprises wide powers and authority. The word of the superintendent, mayor, or sheikh is considered to be a final ruling that applies to all members of the tribe, on the basis of custom and traditional practice.

baby symbols

“Why was she murdered?”

Magda Hassan Ali recounts, with profound sadness, how a girl with special needs was murdered because she was found in possession of a phone. "Sadly, the phone that her family found on her had no SIM card or battery. But they still accused her of using it to talk to men. They tied her to a horse and beat her so brutally that she died."

Audio recording of Magda Hassan Ali, head of the Darfur Women’s Inclusive Stand

For Sound recording translation please Click Here.

Madga brought up other similar crimes committed in East Darfur State. The common factor in all of them was that the perpetrators escaped punishment. This prompted her and other women's groups to hold a protest in February 2023, outside the court buildings in the centre of Nyala asking: “Why was she murdered - what did she do wrong?” They demanded that perpetrators should not be able to escape punishment through the help of the Native Administration, and the families of the victims, and called for an end to so-called “settlement” in murder cases.

Statement from women’s association on protest rally Statement from women’s association on protest rally

Statement from women’s association on protest rally

For Statement translation please Click Here.

Photos from the protest rally Photos from the protest rally
Photos from the protest rally

Photos from the protest rally

“Everyone knows what is going on, but no one dares to inform the Police,” this is what Adam Abkar (pseudonym) said. He has lived in Nyala city, the capital of South Darfur Governorate, all his life. Abkar, who is 69 years old, recounts the incident of the death of two girls, one of whom was still a baby: “she was less than 15 years old, a man asked for her hand in marriage, but his request was denied. Her brother found her talking on the phone and suspected that she was talking with the guy that her family had turned down. He then strangled her to death, and while everyone knew the facts, no one dared to inform the Police.”

Voice of Adam Abkar (his voice has been masked to ensure his privacy)

For Sound recording translation please Click Here.

As for the second incident witnessed by Abkar, he adds: "there was a girl found by her brother and cousin talking on the phone in remote area known as the valley or “wadi”, and they took turn beating her all the way back to her home. And as soon as her mother left the house to go to the market, they strangled her, and later claimed that she had committed suicide.”

baby symbols

Perpetrators benefit from traditional practice

The author of this investigation has obtained a memorandum issued by the General Directorate of Women and Children in the Ministry of Social Affairs in South Darfur State, signed by the Director General, Sarah Mustafa Musa. It calls on the then state governor, Hamid El-Tijani Hanoun, to instruct judicial agencies – the Public Prosecutor and the judiciary - not to settle cases of murder of women and girls outside the legal framework, i.e. the courts. The memorandum also calls on the state governor to allow the Ministry of Social Welfare, Women and Child Affairs - represented by the General Directorate of Women and Family Affairs - to oversee and to follow up on the procedures for trying perpetrators of the crime, so as to prevent settlements being made out of court.

The memorandum states that the Federal Ministry of Social Development, Women and Child Affairs, issued a ruling on October 4, 2021, (No. A/M/50/1) to extend protection to women and girls from incidents of violence and abuse. It directed the setting up of early warning systems; the prosecution of those abusing women's rights; curbing the violence committed against women in local areas; advocating the prosecution of those perpetrating crimes against humanity; and reducing the severity of violence committed against women.

The memorandum also includes a national plan to implement UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, which was approved by the Sudanese transitional government on June 10, 2020. This resolution - adopted by the Security Council at its 4213rd session on October 31, 2000 – emphasises the responsibility of signatory states, including Sudan, to put an end to impunity, and to prosecute those responsible for crimes of sexual and other nature of violence against women and girls. It also stresses the need to exempt such crimes from the provisions of any legal amnesty.

قرار المجلس الطبي بخصوص حالة مريم الشميري

For translation please Click Here.

None of this, however, has resulted in any of the murderers of women and girls in Darfur being put on trial. According to Sarah Mustafa Musa, head of the General Directorate of Women and Children at the Ministry of Social Development in South Darfur State, no killer of women and girls in Darfur has been arrested in the past few years, with the exception of the six accused of murdering the five girls from Abu Ajourah, who were detained in Cooper (Copar) Prison in Nyala.

Musa points out that the judicial and police services have ceased functioning, and all detainees in prisons in Nyala, including the six defendants, were released when war broke out in the capital, Khartoum, and spread to the states of Darfur on April 23, 2023. This was confirmed by the governor of South Darfur, Bashir Mersal Hasballah, who pointed to the impact of the war on the holding of trials, which had allowed these perpetrators to escape punishment.

Hasballah acknowledged that attacks on girls had occurred in Al Salam locality in South Darfur State, and the factors preventing justice being delivered: “The fact that Native Administrations intervene in the proceedings of some major cases, settling them out of court, in the name of customary practice, and this prevents justice being done.”

“Customary practice” means a set of customs and traditions in a particular environment, which have been established by the group and have gained equivalent importance and respect to religious and secular law.

baby symbols

A decision on paper

We asked the former director general of the Ministry of Social Affairs in South Darfur State, Aseenat Ali Adam, why the ministry had failed to implement its ruling on protecting women from violence and prosecuting perpetrators, and to stem the increase in the murder and torture of girls by their families for possessing or using a phone. Adam - who took up her position when the ministerial ruling was being issued – replied that one of the main reasons for the increase in the cases of murders of girls was that the family often relinquished their right to retribution. She added that another reason was the “weak sentences” passed on those who committed the crime.

According to Adam, the government itself has also proved to be an obstacle to implementing the ruling, by failing to provide either enough material resources or means of transport for Violence Against Women Units, which are primarily responsible for implementing the ministerial ruling to provide protection for women from violence. These units as a result were unable to reach victims in remote villages. And there are no offices where they can carry out their activities. “The people working in the Violence Against Women Units have to sit under trees. Sometimes I have to vacate my own office when they have work that requires confidentiality,” she says.

Adam says that usually when she asks for a car or some other logistical requirement to follow up on cases of women abuses in local areas, she is told that the priority is for security operations. “Our letters are not answered and just pile up in the drawers of state government offices. Sadly Violence Against Women Protection Units are a sham.”

baby symbols

Failings in the law

“The fault lies in Sudan’s laws,” is how Saleh Mahmoud, head of the Darfur Bar Association, diagnoses the basic problem. “One of the most important demands of the Sudanese revolution in 2018 was an overhaul of the law, especially those dealing with criminal proceedings, family law, and the so-called personal status law. There was a call for fundamental and constructive reform of justice institutions in Sudan, principally the courts and the Public Prosecution.”

Mahmoud points out that both the government of former President Omar al-Bashir and that of the transitional prime minister, Abdullah Hamdok, refused to implement or amend these laws, even though this was urgently needed and even after Sudan was moved by the UN Human Rights Council from Item 4 to Item 10. Item 10 allows the Sudanese government to take advantage of the council’s technical assistance to undertake legal reform. But this did not happen, so that a general reform of Sudan’s laws is still urgently needed.

Mahmoud asserts that the weakness of the law in prosecuting perpetrators of crimes against women, their impunity from prosecution and a general lack of accountability stem from what he calls the “climate” that has perpetuated in Sudan over the past thirty years.

baby symbols

Native Administration refuses to take responsibility

We felt compelled to put all the findings of our investigation to the Native Administration. But Mayor Edam Abubakr Ismail, a member of this administration in El Daein, East Darfur State, put the blame on jawdiya – a practice by which disputes are settled between members of society at its various levels within the framework of local institutions, without resorting to state courts. This, he said, helped give perpetrators impunity. “This is the reason the Native Administration decides to pay blood money with the consent of both parties, in accordance with local customs.”

But he said that the police also bore a major responsibility since they were unable to hold the accused in custody after arresting him, because of inadequate funding.

Mayor Youssef Adam, also known as Abu Khattab, confirmed that throughout Darfur girls had been killed by their families for using mobile phones, and that the perpetrators had not been prosecuted. But he thought the Native Administration was justified in following “customary practice” in judging murder cases, to prevent “the loss of more lives.” So the case is handled by having both parties sit down together, even though they know that such a procedure may be unfair to women.

The Native Administration wields the greatest power in Darfur. It is the only element of the state that is above the police. In fact, it sometimes issues instructions to the police, according to an officer (who preferred to remain anonymous) working in the police criminal investigation department in Nyala.

He describes how matters are settled: “The Native Administration sits down under a tree with the two parties mentioned in the report, away from the police, and reaches a settlement with them. Then it comes to the police and demands that the accused be released, on bail or some other guarantee, and that the report be either kept or cancelled. After that, the police just have to do what they say.”

According to the policeman’s account, eleven reports of murders of girls for using a phone, in which the accused are family members, have been cancelled up to now, based on instructions from the Native Administration. He said that the most notable of these crimes had been committed in the villages of Belil, Bulbul Abu Jazo, Bulbul Dalal Al-Anqara, Dabbat Al-Hamra and Zeifa, as well as in various displaced persons camps.

baby symbols

An unknown fate

Since fleeing her home, Noura has sought refuge in the house of the tribal leader, whose wife gave her new shoes and a dress. Noura, who helps with the household chores, is sometimes overcome by fear of the uncertain future that awaits her. She cannot return home, or risk being attacked again, but is not sure how long she can remain a “guest” with no source of income.