An Appraisal of Rwanda's Response to Survivors Who Experienced Sexual Violence in 1994


Nagarajan, Chitra. 2012. "An Appraisal of Rwanda's Response to Survivors Who Experienced Sexual Violence in 1994." Wagadu: A Journal of Transnational Women's and Gender Studies 10: 108-31.

Author: Chitra Nagarajan


Over a million people were killed in 1994 during Rwanda's genocide and war, with many women compelled to 'offer' sex, raped, held in collective or individual sexual slavery and mutilated. An estimated 250 000 to 500 000 women still alive were raped between 1990 and 1994, 30 000 pregnancies resulted from rape and the 67% of survivors considered HIV positive continue to suffer the consequences of wartime sexual violence (Wells, 2004-2005). Countless women now live with serious illnesses, pain or injury, unable to provide for families. The level of trauma is severe, compounded by shame, exclusion, stigma, survivor's guilt and contested feelings towards the children of bad memories born of rape and as many perpetrators were neighbours who often live nearby. Despite commitment to the rights of women and recognition of the prevalence of rape during the genocide, the Rwandese government has been slow to offer legal redress, medical treatment and counselling and has not prioritized prosecution and punishment. Conviction rates are low. Reparations are not forthcoming. Neither the national courts nor the gacaca, have investigated and prosecuted these cases in a fitting manner. Although attention has been paid to sexual violence, defects in the drafting of statutory law and its implementation discourage reporting, investigation and prosecution. Recent procedural revisions dismiss very real fears around fair trail, public ridicule, and increased trauma.  Difficulties in addressing the legacies and widespread nature of sexual violence are being overlooked as the government prioritizes the construction of a sense of nationhood and continuation of its own power over the needs of survivors. The result is that many women, infected with HIV or with other serious illnesses, are slowly dying without reparation, healthcare, counselling or seeing perpetrators brought to justice.


"Survivors of RPF [Rwanda Patriotic Front] sexual violence are not recognised as the government refuses to acknowledge the scale of atrocities committed by its forces, claiming Rwandese Patriotic Army (RPA) soldiers committed only isolated instances of rape and other war crimes." (109)
"By the time the genocide was halted by the RPA, only 200 000 of Rwanda’s 1 million Tutsis remained alive." (110)
"The government has pledged to remedy traditional exclusion and repression of women and worked closely with activists to pass laws reforming succession regimes to allow women to inherit land and property and legislation on gender-based violence. Activists are initiating legal change and closing the distance between law and reality, however change in attitude and culture is slow. Gendered social and cultural attitudes have great influence. Cultural barriers preventing women from expressing themselves in public remain powerful. Domestic violence is common, de facto polygamy is on the rise due to imbalanced numbers of women and men and the punishment for adultery is harsher for women than for men. Although 40% of judges in Rwanda are women, female share of real power beyond an urban elite remains small. There is continued preference for sending boys to school as well as the poverty that drives parents to arrange early marriage and girls to engage in transactional sex (Morel-Seytoux & Lalonde, 2002). However, there does seem to be general acceptance that culture regarding women needs to be transformed." (112)
"Rwandese society forces rape experiences into silence, blaming victims and ostracising them as the dishonoured property of male relatives. Incited by ethnic and gender stereotypes that Tutsi women were made for sexuality and beauty, sexual torture was the norm rather than the exception during the genocide with thousands raped, gang raped, raped with sharpened sticks, bottles and gun barrels, held in collective or individual sexual slavery and sexually mutilated with machetes, knives, sticks, boiling water or acid. Although many were killed immediately, others were allowed to live to give birth to babies of the enemy or die protracted deaths." (114-115)
"Survivor organisations consider the genocide to have continued long afterwards with women infected by HIV considered ‘the living dead.’ The level of trauma is severe, compounded by shame, exclusion, survivor’s guilt and the fact that many rapists were neighbours who still live nearby. Rape is equated with adultery and survivors are often perceived as collaborators who traded sexual favours for survival while families were murdered. With rape considered to render women unsuitable for marriage, many families hide the rape of daughters. In some cases survivors are despised: ‘the neighbours make fun of us. It would be better if I moved to a place where no one knows me and where they aren’t interested in me’ (African Rights, 2004, p. 5). Many women have left their homes hoping for anonymity." (115)
"The government turned to a local form of dispute resolution to make guilt/innocence determinations. Previously a mechanism whereby perpetrator and victim and their families would, facilitated by family or community elders, come to agreement about the best way to remedy harm caused by mostly property crimes, gacaca was revised, formalised and institutionalised to form gacaca jurisdictions.14 Clark (2007, p. 58) emphasises ‘the spirit of gacaca enshrines local actors as the most crucial participants in the search for internal solutions to internal problems,’ with the entire community debating the root causes of conflict while punishing perpetrators." (116)
"These survivors of sexual violence do not even have the crimes perpetrated against them recognised and acknowledged as such. Further, 82% of survivors say they feel threatened during the process with insecurity voiced particularly by female survivors (NURC, 2008). Indeed there have been reports of survivors threatened and murdered." (117)
"However, the two tiered system combined the inadequacies of both for survivors: problems of accessing national courts and fear of experiences considered shameful becoming community knowledge. Although the law gives rape victims the opportunity to give testimony to the gacaca judge of their choice in camera, many women did not know of this option and viewed the process as a public one that exposes them to stigma and public ridicule. Moreover, requests to testify in camera give rise to assumptions of having been raped. In 2002, 60% of survivors predicted women would testify less than men and they all believed families would prevent young girls from  testifying about sexual violence (Wells, 2004-2005). In some cases, confessions at gacaca have identified victims of sexual violence who then suffer from ignominy." (118)

Topics: Gender, Women, Gender-Based Violence, Health, Post-Conflict, Post-Conflict Reconstruction, Sexual Violence, Rape, SV against Women Regions: Africa, Central Africa, East Africa Countries: Rwanda

Year: 2012

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