Sharifa Bamkar has never been afraid to speak her mind about women's rights.
15 Mar 2024

Breaking with conventions: The fight for women’s rights in Eastern Sudan

Working against female genital mutilation and for women’s rights, Sharifa Gafar Bamkar uses the most powerful example there is: Her own story.

Sharifa Gafar Bamkar comes from a family of courageous people. Her father was a well-educated man, and her mother a strong and determined woman. When she was born, her parents decided not to have her cut. In a country where 88 % of women and girls between 15-49 years have undergone female genital mutilation (FGM), their decision was a bold one. For that bold decision, Bamkar was the one who felt the consequences of breaking social and cultural norms.

-I have lived the stigma of not being cut, of feeling that I was different from the other girls in a way that many looked down upon, she says.

It became important for Bamkar to continue her parents’ fight against FGM, and she has done so through actively engaging with the local community whilst building a career as a researcher on gender issues.

Building trust
Bamkar has been part of the close academic collaboration between research milieus in Bergen and Sudan for many years, first as a member of the Assisting regional universities in Sudan (ARUS) programme, now through the Sudan-Norway Academic Cooperation (SNAC) project where she is a cluster leader for the topic Gender, peace, and security, representing the Red Sea University. But she has also worked for and been affiliated to several NGOs focusing on women’s rights throughout the years, a work that has found both inspiring and rewarding. The NGO part of her career started at Oxfam’s regional office in Port Sudan.

-It was great being in an environment with such an interest in and knowledge about gender issues. I grew up in a society where women are marginalized. Already from an early age I noticed that conversations about human rights came to a halt when someone raised the issue of women’s rights. Working for organizations and being part of research environments where women’s rights are so present on the agenda has inspired me, she says.

That inspiration stayed with her as she continued to do both voluntary work and consultancies for civil society organizations. For the past years, she has worked as a researcher at the Women’s Study Center at the Red Sea University in Sudan. She finds that being associated with the university contributes to the respect people have for her. Being a researcher gives status in Sudan. She has benefitted from this standing in her efforts to raise awareness about women’s rights through organizing workshops at the university and training sessions in the local community.  

Active engagement in discussions and years of experience working for and on women’s rights has made Bamkar a go to-person in Port Sudan for questions about gender issues. NGO staff and ministers seek her out for advice on how to talk about and how to deal with it. She also been a dependable conversation partner for women who have come to her for help. Getting to where she is today has required time and patience. The trust and respect she is met with in her local community has taken years to build. And it is this trust that has let her be one of few voices who has talked openly about topics like FGM and child marriage.

-Trust is absolutely crucial if you are to talk about these issues that are still sensitive. People will not be open with you if they do not know you and what you stand for.

But she did not come this far without taking risks. She has actively referred to her own story and experiences in the teaching and training sessions she gives as a researcher, first as a member of the ARUS team, then as part of the SNAC team. This is a bold move in a patriarchal culture where women’s rights are still a sensitive and at times controversial topic, but she finds that it has worked so effectively that she is willing to take her chances.

-Hearing someone tell their own story encourages people to open up. It shows people that it is ok to talk about women’s rights, about FGM, about child marriage. And we need open discussions. We will not get anywhere without people being willing to talk about these issues, says Bamkar.

‘Not a woman’s field’
Still, there are limits to what even someone with her standing can do. Gender is a highly politicized topic in Sudan.

-Most people, even the ones who are involved in women’s rights advocacy, do not talk about gender as a concept. We stick to specific and concrete topics like gender-based violence and FGM, she says.

But in the most conservative parts of Sudan, like Eastern Sudan where she herself lived and worked before the war forced her to flee to Cairo, survivors of violence against women cannot openly share their experiences.

-If a woman raises her voice to talk about gender-based violence, even in a group where other women are present, she is told that this is politics and that politics is not a woman’s field, says Bamkar.

A new life
Bamkar and her children are now building a new life in Cairo. Not by choice but by necessity. The war forced them to leave Sudan, and her children have now started attending school in the Egyptian capital. She is relieved that her children are now able to continue their education and can allow themselves to plan for their future. Yet, there is a sense of ambivalence. She fears what their displacement will do to their sense of belonging, to their identity as Sudanese. How long does it take someone who is forced to leave to forget the country they were born in?

She does not know the answer, but unless more concerted efforts are made to bring the war to an end, she fears they may become part of a generation that is lost for Sudan.

-The Sudanese children who have been displaced to Cairo, like my own, may very well grow up feeling more Egyptian than Sudanese, she says.

But despite the war and all of the consequences it has for the Sudanese people, Bamkar still has hope for the future. Even though the war has forced her to leave Sudan for now, she will continue the fight for women’s rights, also from her new temporary location. And she knows that the legacy of all the women, and the men, who came before her lives on despite the war. 

-There are still good people around. We have a new generation of both women and men who support and work for women’s rights, and who are more active than ever, she says.

Some of these people will be her own children, continuing the legacy of her parents who chose to stand up against patriarchal conventions.