OTASH, Sudan -- The breeze ruffled Katuma Abdullah Adam's green scarf as the sheik and his helpers slowly poured water over her head. Once, twice, three times they repeated the ritual as the pregnant 15-year-old wept in shame.
"You can now enter paradise," the sheik said, ushering Katuma inside a dark hut so her swollen body could also be washed, along with her nose and mouth, as a symbolic cleansing of the sin she had suffered.
Adam Abdul Karim, left, a local sheik, counsels Aisha Ismail, the mother of a girl who was raped in Sudan. Sexual violence is a low official priority in Sudan, and rape victims are ostracized and seen as poor candidates for marriage.
(Emily Wax -- The Washington Post)
To the family of Katuma, who was raped and impregnated by an Arab militia fighter five months ago in the war-torn region of Darfur, this shamanistic cure was the only form of redemption available in a situation where legal justice is elusive, officials are embarrassed to discuss rape and the chances of catching and prosecuting attackers are next to none.
While a ritual bath cannot substitute for a court of law, according to Sudanese culture it may help mitigate the negative long-term social effects of rape -- the public ostracism of the victim, her devaluation as a future bride and the lifelong stigma that will fall on any child born of the crime.
According to the United Nations and human rights groups, thousands of women have been raped by gunmen in the course of a 20-month conflict that pits African rebel groups against Sudanese troops and pro-government Arab militias known as the Janjaweed. The United Nations says more than 70,000 people have died.
In August and September, the French medical charity Doctors Without Borders reported that it had treated 123 cases of rape in South Darfur, at least 100 of which occurred during attacks on villages by armed men. Victims said they were assaulted at gunpoint and in some cases gang-raped.
Despite widespread documentation of the rapes by international groups and promises by the government to investigate and prosecute rape cases, sexual violence remains a low official priority. Sudanese society ostracizes rape victims and associates them with deep shame.
There is also little public trust in the police and the courts, because Janjaweed militiamen accused of the crimes are seen as backed by the government.
A recent report by Amnesty International, the London-based human rights group, called rape "a weapon of war in Darfur," often accompanied by racial insults, whipping, undressing and public sexual acts as a form of humiliation. To the Arab Janjaweed, attacking African women is seen as a way to mortify African rebel groups, the report said.
Many women have also reported being told by rapists that they wanted to produce Arab babies and weaken African tribal lines.
Amnesty International documented hundreds of rape cases and described the horrific long-term social consequences for the women. But U.N. officials and others said international pressure had done little to make local officials address the plight of women who are victims of rape, as well as resulting health problems and pregnancies.
"The government as a whole is in denial about the scale and the severity of the problems," said Louise Arbour, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, who visited Darfur in late September. "Cases where attempts are made by women to report to the police are disbelieved, or in any event, no further action is taken on their report."
On a recent trip to South Darfur, U.S. Reps. Jesse L. Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) and Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.) visited camps in the region and were told they would see a "rape tent," where victims could report the crimes. When they arrived at the designated camp, however, there was no such tent. Refugees said there never had been one.
Jackson shook his head and said: "These guys are professional sugarcoaters. What are we going to do about this?"