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Naive Activism: Abuse of Women Is Always, Everywhere, Abuse

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I know I can be naïve. Western-centred too. I write and campaign on a range of issues loosely described as "womens' issues" and "lgbt issues": but my focus, mostly, is on those things that go on in the UK, then Europe and, because of family ties, Eastern Europe.

There are horrors there. Still, a friend who, in her younger days, worked with the UN on issues of trafficking and violence against women will pull me up from time to time. However hard we think things are in the UK - the cuts, the stripping away of work protections, police indifference over domestic violence - it is nothing by comparison to what goes on elsewhere in the world.

That's a difficult debate. I understand her point of view. But its not reason for giving up the fight here. An individual who has been subject to rape, to violence, to exploitation in work is deserving of our help wherever she may be located: we cannot always pick our causes according to some grand scheme of "worthiness": we do what we can, when we can.

Even so, there are times when a report lands in front of me and I have to stop and read twice to get the sheer cruelty of what has been done. So it is with a short story passed on through another friend, now working with survivors of genocide in Sudan and elsewhere in Africa.

The public order court in Al-Kalaklah [a neighbourhood in Khartoum State] has recently sentenced a girl to receive a flogging of over 100 lashes for an "illegal pregnancy".

The girl, who is described as having special needs and deaf, told an interpreter that a young man, her neighbour and father of her child, had promised to marry her and asked her to go with him to his home. There, they "committed fornication" until she became pregnant and gave birth to a baby.

He denied this and following a statement from the girl, she was sentenced.


That's it. No names. No more detail. The story emerges through the BBC's monitoring service, which is itself providing a translation of a story that appeared in Alwan, a privately-owned pro-Islamist Sudanese newspaper on 18 February this year.

Is it naïve to mention this? At the back of my mind I am constantly aware that such stuff goes on: that in a world where some religious groups will oppose a woman's right even to education with violence and murder, 100 lashes for "promiscuity" is far from exceptional: read this report from 2010, which highlights some 43,000 allegations for similar public order offences made against women in one state (Khartoum) in just one year.

And in the grand scheme of things, what's one public flogging against mass murder and genocide?

Its tempting to buy this hierarchy of oppression: to argue that until one has tackled the worst, one has no business intervening in respect of the less bad. Tempting - and inhuman.

The Sudan is way, way outside my sphere of understanding. I don't know the history of the region, its politics or the particular flavour of its religion. I'm not going to derail other work I do in order to plunge into issues I don't fully understand.

So instead, I'll do the one thing I can: set out this story for others to read so those who want to get involved can do so (if you're interested, take a look at the work of Waging Peace and Article 1) ; and I'll excuse my focusing on it today as simple humanity. Somewhere in the world, a young girl has made a mistake, as others have before her, in trusting the blandishments of a lover.

Unlike the UK, where what follows is personal decision, largely supported by the state, she must now pay for that mistake through a punishment that is cruel beyond words: both in itself; and in the very fact that it should be deemed proper response to her actions.

My heart goes out to her.