Editor’s Note:CNN is committed to covering gender inequality wherever it occurs in the world. This story is part of As Equals, an ongoing series
Khartoum, Sudan — Weeks into the protests that would eventually topple Sudan’s dictator, the government realized it had an unprecedented problem on its hands: the number of women in the streets calling for change far outnumbered the men.
So the regime’s top brass sent a chilling message down to its officers on the ground: “Break the girls, because if you break the girls, you break the men.”
What followed, several officials told CNN, was a systematic attempt to target the women at the heart of the biggest anti-government protests in decades.
In the early months of the uprising, soldiers began to arrest women on the front lines in the capital Khartoum and, activists say, take them to secret detention sites, where they were photographed naked and threatened with sexual violence.
But as Omar al-Bashir’s 30-year grip on power began to slip, soldiers began to make good on their threats. Some women were beaten senseless by police in public. Others were dragged into the vehicles of security forces and raped, the activists said.
The orders from the regime were clear, according to one intelligence officer. “We all know what it means to break a girl,” he told CNN.
The assaults set off a ripple-effect of abuse — husbands began to divorce their wives out of shame, and fathers beat their daughters into submission, in an attempt to keep them at home.
But time and time again, the women returned to the streets, throwing tear gas canisters back at the military, climbing atop car roofs to urge the protesters on, and manning food and drink stalls to help in any way they could.
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