Feminists vs. Genocide

"Sometimes it feels like there's not much you can do about a genocide occurring a world away," says Baylee DeCastro -- but the UCLA undergraduate's activism on behalf of victims in the Sudan crisis may prove otherwise.

Since a 2003 uprising by rebel factions in its western Darfur region, Sudan has supported the murder of tens of thousands of Darfuris by a rogue militia of armed horsemen called the Janjaweed. When DeCastro and five other members of the Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance at UCLA read about the plight of Darfuri women and girls -- who were displaced to refugee camps and are vulnerable to rape by the Janjaweed when they leave camp to gather firewood -- they felt called to action.

They began a letter-writing and education campaign, complete with a makeshift "refugee camp" built on campus. They also formed a task force with Darfur activists at other University of California (U.C.) campuses to scrutinize U.C. investments in Sudan. Taking their inspiration from the 1986 U.C. divestment from companies supporting South Africa's apartheid regime, the task force proposed that the 10-campus U.C. system divest from certain stocks as a financial "stick" to encourage the Sudanese government to change its policies. Specifically, they named eight Sudan-linked international oil and energy companies, along with Sudatel, a phone company accused of cooperating in the genocide by cutting off service during Janjaweed attacks.

"It's not easy to convince the U.C. Regents that divesting is a good idea," says Allen Roberts, director of the African Studies Center at UCLA, which helped connect the students with experts on the Sudan crisis. At the end of last year, the Regents balked at the nine-company plan, proposing instead to divest from just the four oil-related companies that Stanford University, in a precedent-setting action, had previously divested from.

"But we didn't just want symbolic divestment," says Karina Garcia, one of the original six feminists who sparked the plan. "We wanted something concrete that would actually make a difference." The task force decided to hold out, and was supported by hundreds of students, faculty and staff who rallied outside a Regents' meeting in March. Finally persuaded, the Regents voted unanimously to divest from all nine companies.

Three weeks later, the California State Teachers Retirement Fund, the second-largest public pension fund in the country, announced that it would divest from Sudan-linked holdings according to the U.C. model. The task force also began working with the New York, Rhode Island, North Carolina and Kansas legislatures to similarly reform their employee pension funds.

This spring, Sudan and the rebel leaders signed a peace accord, but both sides have failed to abide by similar agreements, so human-rights experts are pessimistic that real change is on the way -- yet. But this doesn't discourage the activists, who are emboldened knowing that U.S. student action was a crucial force behind apartheid's demise in South Africa. "We've had many South African visitors of note who have said the U.S. university movement for divestment made a huge difference," says the African Studies Center's Roberts.

"[Students] go through periods of amnesia where we forget the power that we wield," says DeCastro. "But I always expected the divestment would go this far, because students have been key catalysts of social change movements throughout history."

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