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Nineteen-year-old teenager Noura Hussein was earlier this week sentenced to the death penalty for killing her husband after she stabbed him to death while he raped her. The decision has been condemned by rights groups, activists, and Hussein’s supporters, prompting a national and international outcry, as well as highlighting the issues of gender inequality, marital inequality, child marriage, and marital rape in both Sudan and across the world.
Hussein was forced into the marriage at 15 by her family, but ran away to live with an aunt in Eastern Sudan soon after, although she was eventually convinced to return home by her family, who then delivered her to her husband and his family. After refusing to consummate their marriage, Hussein says she was held down by three of her husband’s relatives while her husband raped her, and when he tried to force himself onto her again the next morning, she stabbed him with a kitchen knife. However, when she turned to her parents for help, they reported her to the police. Her husband’s family refused financial compensation and instead asked for the death penalty, and Hussein’s lawyers now have 15 days to appeal her sentence.
Hussein’s lawyers have argued that she should be treated like the victim she is, not a criminal, and her criminalization “would violate her rights under the Sudanese constitution and international law.”
Amnesty International, along with other international rights groups and supporters of Hussein in Sudan, have all called for the death sentence to be dropped. Seif Magango – Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for East Africa, the Horn, and the Great Lakes – has said in a statement that “the death penalty is the ultimate cruel, inhuman, and degrading punishment and to apply it to a rape victim only highlights the failure of the Sudanese authorities to acknowledge the violence [Hussein] endured.”
The case has also attracted international media attention and prompted an outpouring of support on social media from across the world, including the Twitter hashtag “JusticeForNoura” and a change.org petition.
Hussein was charged with premeditated murder under the Sudanese Criminal Act (1991) which does not recognize marital rape as a crime, and as a result, violence against women is high in Sudan, and women are treated as less than and subservient to men, in an extremely patriarchal culture. Sudan is ranked 140th out of 159 countries on a 2015 UN report about gender inequality.
Child marriage, forced marriage, and marital rape are all major issues in Sudan, and lax laws against these issues continually place women at high risk of violence, with little to no help from the justice system. Marriage is legal in Sudan for children over the age of ten, and UNICEF estimates that approximately one in three girls in Sudan is married before the age of 18.
While cases such as Noura Hussein’s are commonplace in Sudan and other countries with similar laws surrounding child marriage and marital rape, the international media coverage, social media campaigns, and public interest have all drawn attention to these issues that urgently need to be addressed. Hussein is a victim of her circumstances, including the culture in which she lives – a culture that not only refuses to protect or defend women but actively punishes them and allows them to be forced into situations and lives they never asked for.
These women must be better protected by the law, and their rights to their own bodies and lives should never be considered secondary to those of men. In not only allowing for the courts to sentence Hussein to death but also allowing her to be married against her will, the Sudanese government has not only failed her but all women who have endured alongside her for countless years.