Women in Post-Genocide Rwanda:Facing the Past to Build a Future
It is broadly known that women have assumed outstanding leadership responsibility in Rwanda in the years since the 1994 genocide. During that three month period in 1994, roughly 800,000 people were murdered usually by their neighbours and with crude weapons such as machetes. The majority of those killed were Tutsis, the ethnic group targeted for genocide. But a significant number of Hutu people were also killed for refusing in one way or another to participate in the rampage.
The violence was ended by the victory of a Tutsi-led army which entered Rwanda from neighbouring Uganda. At the end of the genocide, nearly one million Hutu fled the country, fearing reprisals while several hundred thousand Tutsi returned to Rwanda from exile.
The drastic change in Rwanda’s demographics can be gleaned with the surviving women and girls who eventually constituted 70 per cent of the population.
Women and girls were certainly targeted for rape during the genocide. Aside from contaminating the ethnic genealogy of Tutsi women and girls, systemic rape was also meant to kill them in the end.
The Rwandan Genocide and its Sexual Violence
In fact, the Hutu leadership encouraged their men who were infected with HIV-AIDS to lead the raping of Tutsi women who eventually became pregnant and passed on the virus to their children.
Today there is a large number of women who have survived rape and are living with HIV-AIDS, as well as raising children to whom they passed the virus. In many ways, the Rwandan genocide is an extraordinary lesson on the gender and generational dimension of acute violence. In the country, women bore the brunt of the genocide but even as some of them survived, they were forced to live with the trauma and pass it on to the next generation.
But such gender dimension is not only crucial in exacting accountabilities but in one’s personal healing and community’s reconstruction.
Today women represent 56 per cent of the lower house of the parliament and occupy eight out of the ten cabinet seats. Young girls are reaching unprecedented levels of scholastic achievement. One third of households is headed by women. Several civil society organisations have also sprouted, addressing the more specific needs of women. The efforts and achievements of women can make Rwandans can feel immense pride as they struggle to build a new country following such profound destruction.
However more than one decade since the genocide, more and more challenges await women. But the women have turned to their communities, contexts and creativity in confronting the past and move on to the future.
Physical violence against the female family members is so common that it is considered normal but Rwandan women have their own ways of subverting these norms, resisting violence, exacting accountability and renewing their spirit.
I have travelled to Rwanda many times over the past nine years, working with different organisations and projects on social healing and peacebuilding. With colleagues from the Karuna Centre for Peacebuilding, I have worked with women’s organisations to develop a cadre of experts in conflict resolution and transformation. I have also worked with local and international organisations that initiate regional campaigns on gender based violence (GBV).
The relationships that I have built with communities around the country have taught me more than I have learned in many years spent elsewhere. I remain amazed by the capacity of the human spirit to confront and transcend tragedy and betrayal. Having experienced such human extremity, Rwandans, especially their women have so much to share.
As with their counterparts elsewhere, Rwandan women are subjected by gender norms to perform much of the work. Physical violence against female family members is so common that it has been considered normal. Even when these women assume new roles, they cannot shed their existing roles in the hearth. But Rwandan women have their own ways of subverting these norms, resisting violence, exacting accountability and renewing their spirit.
They are not keen on direct confrontation nor on solidarity. At times they mistrust other women who gain power. The country’s uneven development with the urban and rural divide further heightens the differences among women. Urban women are generally highly educated, have greater access to services and have “globalised” perspectives. Meanwhile, the very notion of gender is hardly appreciated with the male power structures in the villages. It is for this reason that the likelihood of GBV is higher in the country than in the city.
Of course there is also rich interplay, with educated women committing time and effort tobuilding alliances with women in rural areas – an interface that becomes advantageous to both.
But one of the venues of interface and solidarity among Rwandan women is Gacaca.
Gacaca is a traditional litigation process that has been used for crimes of genocide.
It is also innovative in the sense that it speeds up trials that would have progressed at a snail’s pace in the formal courts. Accomplished at the village level in the last several years, Gacaca is an ongoing experiment in transitional and restorative justice unlike any the world has ever witnessed before.
Everyone is expected to participate. In fact, there are sanctions if one withholds evidence. The judges are local citizens chosen by their peers on the basis of their integrity. Once the case is complete, the judges retire to decide on a sentence. Penalties can include a combination of prison and community service or can be completed entirely in the form of community service.
Gacaca is both a risk and an opportunity for Rwandan women. Standing up in public to testify on experiences that are personal and sensitive runs counter to Rwandan culture. To begin with, to share the story of a sexual crime even in the presence of family members is a disturbing process in itself. Accusing others, usually men, who have committed grave violence is dangerous. But not telling the truth is also risky as someone else may know one is lying. Perjury is a criminal offense.
Yet women have played an enormous and pivotal role in the Gacaca as judges, victims, accused and testifiers. As one participant, who initially had qualms over Gacaca shared, “The cycle of revenge and reconciliation helped me to see that in keeping silent I was contributing to the repetition of the cycle, that my silence was a victory for those who had harmed others. Likewise to participate is to be an active contributor to the healing of our country, to the construction of the history of what happened to our country, and to my own healing.”
International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda
Gacaca allows women to articulate themselves and on their families’ behalf for the process of seeking justice. By speaking up and placing the guilt publicly where it belongs, not only helps obtain justice but constitutes a healing potential for individuals.
This leads me to one last reflection. People in other countries tend to think of horror when they hear the word Rwanda. The country has been flooded for many years with people coming from all over the world to “help”. I put the word in quotes because all of us outsiders arrive initially without the eyes to see how Rwandans are living, coping, enduring and transforming their lives. We bring what we imagine people need.
Gacaca is both a risk and an opportunity for Rwandan women. Standing up in public to testify on experiences that are personal and sensitive runs counter to Rwandan culture. Speaking up and placing the guilt publicly where it belongs, not only helps obtain justice but constitutes a healing potential for individuals.
Rwanda is full of people who have lost their own children and who are carefully raising the orphaned children of others. There are countless ways in which Rwandans have seared the wounds they sustained, regardless of their ethnicity. They have converted their pain and bitterness into a determination to survive and build a better future for new generations.
This is not to underestimate the degree of trauma and anguish which remains part of the daily lives of many Rwandans, who look for support in their families and their communities. But to witness the degree to which Rwandans smile, extend their hands and commit themselves to care for others despite their marred personal and political history make me, an outsider rethink. They have faith that far surpasses our own expectations of our less tested lives with less contribution.