During the Rwandan genocide of 1994, members of the Hutu ethnic majority in the east-central African nation of Rwanda murdered as many as 800,000 people, most of the Tutsi minority. Commenced by Hutu nationalist in the capital of Kigali, the genocide spread throughout the country with shocking speed and brutality. As ordinary citizen were incited by local officials and the Hutu power government to take up arms against their neighbors. By the time the Tutsi-led Rwandese Patriotic Front increased control of the country through a military offensive in early July, hundreds of thousands of Rwandans were dead and 2 million refugees, mainly Hutu, absconded Rwanda, exacerbating what had already become a full-blown humanitarian crisis.
Rwandan women were subjected to sexual violence to sexual violence on a massive scale, perpetrated by members of the infamous Hutu militia groups known as the Interahamwe, by other civilians, and by soldiers of the Rwandan Armed Forces during the 1994 genocide. Administrative, military and political leaders at the national and local levels, as well as heads of militia, directed or encouraged both the killings and sexual violence to further their political goal: the destruction of the Tutsi as a group (Nowreojee, 1996). Therefore, they bear responsibility for these abuses.
Social status has historically been symbolized through the possession of cattle, the primary sign of wealth in Rwanda. In fact, Hutu families that acquired sufficient cattle and were able to take clients in the cattle vassalage system would eventually have their status changed and come to be known as Tutsi. Nonetheless, Tutsi who lost their cattle and clients would eventually be considered Hutu. Although ownership of cattle is no longer associated with ethnic identity, it remains an important symbol of status. Social status in contemporary Rwanda is reflected in the knowledge of French or English, which demonstrated a degree of education, and in the possession of consumer goods such as vehicles and televisions.
As in other African countries, the legal position of women in Rwanda was ambiguous. The 1991 constitution stipulated that all citizens were created equal, while at the same time accepting the validity of traditional law in areas where there is no written code. One of the major problems was that the law did not consider the women legally “competent” and only recognized the man as the head of the household. A woman can acquire land for usufruct by a settlement from her parents, or by inheritance if she has no brothers, but upon marriage, it became the husband’s property, and if the marriage ends in divorce she cannot claim it. If her husband dies, the wife inherits nothing. In conclusion, women can own nothing legally, neither house, tools, livestock, or crops (Sellström).
In traditional Rwandan society, women’s responsibilities included education the children, welcoming visitors, managing the households, advising their husbands and maintaining traditions. A gender-based division of labor was instilled at an early age. Among other skills, boys were taught to defend the interests of the family and the nation and were initiated in combat techniques. Girls, on the other hand, were groomed to help their mothers in the household chores. They learned obedience, respect, politeness, submission, and resignation. Thus, to build a house or animal pen, go to the battlefield, mild the cows, ensure the family income and defend and protect the family were tasks dispensed to men, while doing the housework, education the children and pounding grain were tasks exclusive to women.
Women in pre-colonial Rwanda were poorer than men. They conducted 65-70% of agricultural workers across the country, including heavy work such as carrying water and firewood. But, they did not possess and did not have the capacity to control natural, economic and social resources. They were working on family farms in the service of household food production. Physical and sexual violence against women, a topic that received much publicity in the aftermath of the genocide, was also common prior to it. It has been reported that in traditional society:
‘From a young age, the [Rwandan] girl … experiences different forms of violence that she does not discuss … According to tradition, physical violence is perceived as a punishment. In most cases, women accept it as such … The inferior status of the woman [and] her ignorance encourages her into submission and expose her to rape and sexual services … Women also suffer from psychological violence … The woman is obsessed by the behavior that is expected of her. She suffers from a total dependence on her husband’ (Hogg, 2010).
These reports suggested, in pre-genocide Rwandan society, male domination within the family was the norm. Yet, norms are always subject to exceptions, and the extent to which traditional gender roles had evolved by the time of the genocide is rarely specified. Imagining a woman who suffers from the total dependence of her husband is difficult to reconcile with the fact that prior to the genocide, 22% of rural households were mainly headed by women. Gender relations in pre-genocide Rwanda were therefore undoubtedly more complex than often depicted.
The characterization of Rwandan women as absent from political life, where social and political decisions are made, while overly simplistic, does hold some truth. In particular, in the period before the genocide, while women were not completely absent from political life, they were certainly underrepresented in Rwandan politics. Three female government ministers were appointed by 1993, by which time there were 12 female members of parliament, of a total of 70. Nevertheless, there remained very few women in local leadership positions. Until and during the genocide in 1994, there were still no female mayors and as of 1990, women represented only 1% of leaders at the sector level. In spite of this reality, there have been powerful women throughout Rwandan history who challenged the notion that women cannot make any decision for herself. The Queen Mother in pre-colonial Rwandan society held substantial influence as an adviser to the king, to the point that some early European explorers spoke of Rwanda as a territory ruled by a Queen.
The King had designated one of his sons, Rutalindwa, as the heir to the throne, giving him as Queen Mother, not his real mother, who considered politically too weak, but another of his wives, Kanjogera of the Ababega clan. This was essential since the Rwandese monarchy the Queen Mother played a vital political role as manager of the royal household and the focal point of all court intrigues. Pre-colonial Rwanda women enjoyed a degree of political and economic power, as exemplified by the powerful position of the Queen Mother. As Queen Mother, Kanjogera became the most important person in the kingdom.
In pre-1994 Rwanda, women were vastly underrepresented, but never they were among the political elite most responsible for the genocide. The handful that plotted the Rwandan genocide (also known as the “little house”), included two of Rwanda’s most prominent women, President Habyarimana’s wife Agathe and the minister of Family and Promotion of Women. The “little house” wanted to ensure the impunity of those who perpetrated the genocide. At this end, they encouraged the involvement in the massacres of as much of the country as possible, including women and girls. The Rwandan army and the Hutu militia Interahamwe, with the help of civilians, in less than three months killed over one million and mutilated thousands more. Because the weapons of genocide in this impoverished country were matches and nail-studded clubs, there were usually several killers of each victim (Sharlach, 1999).
Three other women held key political positions at the time of the Rwandan genocide, and all three are now accused of instigating and participation in the genocide. Agathe Kanziga was nicknamed Kanjogera after the famous Queen Mother was a very powerful woman between 1973 and 1994. Pauline Nyiramasuhuka, former Minister of Family Affairs and Women’s Development and reportedly one of the Kanziga’s protégés was on trial before the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, while Agnes Ntamabyaliro, former Minister of Justice, was detained in Rwanda and has received a life sentence in isolation for her alleged role in the genocide.
Women’s participation in the genocide and other crimes against humanity can be evidenced in courts of Rwanda, Arusha and other trials in different parts of the world, where they are charged with genocide crimes. Benoit Kaboyi, the Executive Secretary of Ibuka stated that “In most cases women, encourages, supported and pointed out, the people were in hideouts for the killers. Their role [was] not as visible as men’s, but as not all that small, since there were some of them, who were part of the perpetrators of the genocide… Some women had also been trained as Interahamwe and would move around with men hunting and killing Tutsi” (Times Repoter , 2008). Women closely collaborated with Interahamwe to implement the planned killing of Tutsi. Women were primarily instructed to kill the weak people, like the sick and their fellow women. They also hid people and later called the killers to come and end their lives. Nothing else was worked on or given attention, apart from genocide related crimes. In some cases, women looted and prepared meals for the group of Interahamwe. Women were, therefore, not only involved in the killing but also acted as a strong backbone of all killers.
Women suffered a lot during the 1994 Rwandan genocide, particularly as victims of sexual violence from the Interahamwe militia. Rape was used as a weapon by the perpetrators of the genocide. Nongovernmental organizations estimate that two to three hundred thousand rapes occurred during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. These women were raped individually, gang raped, and raped publically in front of their families, raped with sharp objects such as sharpened sticks, used as sexual slaves, and sexually mutilated. This rape was strategic and used to exterminate the Tutsi people by attacking their women, at the heart of society. This rape transcends the sexual satisfaction of the attacker. It was a tool of genocide.
Rape is an act of sexual intercourse that is forced upon an individual by physical force or duress. Previously, rape had occurred both in peace and during the war; however, there has been a recent shift in wartime rape from an act to stratify troops to a strategic method of damaging and elimination an ethnic group. The Rwandan genocide in 1994 was the first case in which the term rape had been legally recognized as a method of genocide. Rape during war is an unnerving reality stemming from the unique psychological situations experienced by soldiers and victims during combat. The World Health Organization discusses a shift in gender roles during times of war in a recent report. The report states that, “A polarization of gender roles occurs… [when] an image of masculinity is sometimes formed which encourages aggressive and, misogynist behavior. On the other hand, women may be idealized as the bearers of cultural identity and their bodies perceived as ‘territory’ to be conquered” (Dixon, 2009).
Rape as a systematic tool of genocide attests to be very effective. Raphael Lemkin coined the term genocide from the Greek genos meaning group and the Latin –cide which means killing. He was adamant that the term genocide be used for what it represented and included the following acts:
- killing members of the group;
- causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
- deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destructions in whole or in part;
- imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; and
- forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
The requirements Lemkin correlated to genocide fit the definition of rape. Mass rape results in the death of many women either immediately or soon after as a result to HIV/AIDS infection. It causes both physical and mental harm to the survivors.
Women play a central role in Rwandan society as mothers and wives. They represent the foundation of new life and regeneration. Attacking them deteriorates the seams of their society in multiple ways. Women who were raped were shunned by their communities and rejected by their husbands. Often, they were forced to leave their homes and belongings behind because they were considered tainted and promiscuous. Children born of rape are often rejected by their mothers and society because they are of diluted ethnicity which further degrades the social fabric of the next generation. Rape is not a new crime. Women have long been the victims of rape during both war and peace. Despite the prevalence of rape as a crime, however, it has been largely ignored by the world as an issue worth addressing. Rape became a forgotten war crime.
Women of Rwanda became the nations ‘beacon of hope’ for gender equality in Sub-Saharan Africa. Reports are claiming that women in post-conflict Rwanda are now the most politically represents at 56%, to assertions that Rwandan women are now leading the rehabilitation of a nation left in tatters after 1994 horrendous genocide. However, what is rarely addressed is the strange union of two opposing trends in Rwanda’s post-conflict environment: that the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF)-led government has advocated for women’s greater political inclusion under the premise that women will ‘better’ the political climate, while simultaneously excluding any form of political dissent or ethnic identification.
Immediately after the genocide, the country was in tatters and many of the most basic needs, including food, clothing, and shelter, were lacking. Women’s organizations steeped in to fill this ‘social void’ and provided much needed basic services, as well as support and counseling to the traumatized survivors. Women’s movement in Rwanda pre-dates the genocide, it grew significantly between 1994 and 2003 to become ‘among the most active sectors of civil society. The advocacy work of the women’s movements around the Inheritance law of 1999the ratification of the new constitution in 2003, the land policy of 2004, followed by the organic land law of 2005 and the proposal on gender-based violence which became a law in 2009.
The umbrella organization PROFEMMES led a women’s movement that played a very active role in initiating the propelling forward gender policies. It also conducted research and surveys, hired experts to assess existing laws and draft new laws, and organized numerous meetings with Parliament, the Supreme Court and the Ministry of Justice. These female lobbyists applied for various smart tactics. They set up ‘alliances with men in government and the parliament’, stressed the importance of ‘valuing women and mothers in traditional Rwandan culture’, and gave voice to poor rural women at parliamentary meetings so as to ‘avoid being seen as the intellectual women of the women’s movement who have no connection to real life in communities’ (Debusscher, 2013). The ‘Inheritance law’ of 1999 guaranteed women equal rights to own and inherit property, specifically, is regarded as a key lobbying achievement of the women’s movement.
The participation of women in Rwandan civil society paved the way for greater equality in the political arena in at least two ways. The first being the noteworthy role women played in service provision after 1994 created a ‘positive image of women’. This has helped to underscore the legitimacy of women’s political participation and the prominence of creating gender-sensitive policies. As a result of the genocide, the women’s movement was given superior room to maneuver and influence policy compared to other civil society organizations, such as human rights or indigenous rights organizations. Secondly, the professional experience that women gained in the civil society sector offered a good foundation in preparation for entering politics and government administration.
A third factor contributed to increased attention to gender equality was the ruling RPF’s commitment to women’s empowerment. The core leadership of RPF was in exile in Uganda for a lengthy period. During this time, they were exposed to Ugandan policies, including policies on women’s rights and inclusion. During exile, Paul Kagame and several of his associates were officers in Museveni’s National Resistance Movement (NRM) and they implemented many of its tactics and policies. Mirroring the Ugandan NRM, the RPF mainstreamed women from early 1990, in both its political and armed winds. This way it clearly distinguished itself from the ruling MRND party and opposition parties in Rwanda. Since 1994, RPF led governments have appointed women to important political and judicial positions, mainstreamed women within the party, and reserved a fixed number of seats for women in the national legislature.
Two decades after the 1994 genocide that killed a devastating number of people in 100 days, the great untold story of Rwanda’s rise is how women rebuilt the nation. A nation that has risen from the ashes of a civil war, became one of the fastest growing economies in the African continent. Rwanda has a stable and remarkable corruption-free government, where women hold key leadership roles and whose policies are cited as a model for gender inclusiveness. Since 1997, Women for Women International has helped more than 75,000 Rwandan women move from crisis and poverty to stability and economic self-sufficiency.