Genocide: Women’s Role in Reconstructing Rwanda
By Sangamithra Iyer
In the spring of 1994, Rwanda was decimated in a
genocide recognized to be the most efficient mass killing since the bombings
Hiroshima and Nagasaki: nearly a million people dead over the course
of 100 days, the outcome of a well executed campaign that called upon
the Hutu majority to exterminate the Tutsi minority and moderate Hutus.
Over a decade later, Rwandan society is still wounded and healing from
the violence that swept the country. Today, women comprise nearly two-thirds
of the population, a majority that can be attributed to the greater number
of men killed during the genocide, and the exodus of male soldiers and
genocidaires to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Furthermore, many adult
men are currently serving in the army or being held in jail awaiting
trial for crimes against humanity.
The genocide has left women as rape survivors, widows, heads of households,
and caretakers of orphans, but women are also emerging as the primary
the challenges of rebuilding and reclaiming their country. Women and women’s
organizations play an important role in redevelopment, as they address and identify
specific post-genocide needs and the lack of services provided by the government
and international community. Women in Rwanda are fighting tremendous hardships,
yet hold a unique position to create the future they envision for their country.
Systematic Rape: a Tool of Genocide
Many women and young girls witnessed the torture and slaughter of their families
and destruction of their homes, their own lives spared only to be subjects of
brutal sexual violence: repeated rapes, genital mutilation, the slashing of their
breasts, amputation, and sexual slavery. The UN Commission on Human Rights estimates
that between 250,000 and 500,000 rapes were committed during the genocide. In
addition, both Hutus and Tutsis were raped in the refugee camps in the Democratic
Republic of Congo, Tanzania, and Uganda.
The impacts of this systematic rape scar Rwandan society: the national population
office estimated the number of unwanted pregnancies resulting from the genocide
to be between 2,000 and 5,000. The lack of access to abortion services led many
women to perform self-induced and unsafe abortions, resulting in serious medical
complications and sometimes death. Abortion was then and continues to be illegal
in Rwanda except when the mother’s health is in jeopardy—even in
cases of rape or incest. There is growing political pressure to legalize abortion,
but a prevalent general pro-life stance has also developed in reaction to the
massive loss of life.
Post-traumatic stress disorder is another long-lasting effect. Several women’s
organizations recognize that psychological and physical well-being are the first
steps in the healing process. A nonprofit organization Avega-Agahozo, created
by 50 widows, seeks to improve the welfare of genocide survivors and has established
a medical center in Kigali offering psychosocial and medical programs. Another
advocacy group, the Rwanda Women’s Network (RWN), founded the Polyclinic
of Hope, a center for victims of gender-based violence which offers free medical
services, psychological support and trauma counselling. In addition, RWN has
developed a trauma counselling training manual to help other communities in the
country provide similar services.
AIDS: The Next Genocide?
HIV/AIDS is probably the largest health issue facing Rwandan society, with the
infant mortality rate on the rise and average life expectancy declining to roughly
39 years. Like elsewhere in Africa, people in Rwanda have little access to anti-retroviral
drugs (ARVs). There are many infected women—a consequence of the mass rapes.
Avega-Agahozo runs an HIV clinic with limited funds but can provide ARVs to only
a few of their patients. Ironically, the genocide suspects awaiting trial in
Arusha, Tanzania have access to free ARVs. Pro-Femmes Twese Hamwe, a network
of Rwandan women’s organizations, is currently urging the International
Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and the UN to provide equal treatment and free ARVs
for survivors and witnesses so that they may live to give their testimonies.
Prior to the genocide, Rwanda was one of the poorest countries in the world with
53 percent of households under the poverty line, a figure that was only exacerbated
by the genocide, when the gross domestic product fell by 50 percent. Poverty
levels today still haven’t been restored to pre-1994 conditions.
Ninety-five percent of Rwanda is rural, and women now make up 57 percent of the
adult working population and are responsible for 70 percent of the country’s
agricultural output. Women are clearly the largest contributor to economic recovery
and as Pro-Femmes Twese Hamwe states, “We cannot talk about development
until the role of women is taken seriously.”
In the Legal and Political Sphere
In 1994, women made up less than six percent of the government. Today, Rwandan
parliament has the highest percentage of women members in any national legislature
in the world, with 49 percent in the lower house and 30 percent in the upper
house. In addition, a new Ministry of Gender and the Promotion of Women has been
established to reform laws that discriminate against women.
Two of the more notable successes combating gender discrimination have been with
respect to inheritance laws and education. Many widows of the genocide lost their
lands and livestock, because Rwandan law prohibited women from owning or inheriting
land at that time. Within the past decade, a new succession law has been written
and adopted to allow women full access to the property of their husbands and
In the education sector, prior to 1994, Rwandan boys outnumbered girls in school
by a ratio of nine to one. Now boys and girls have equal attendance rates and
as many as 50 percent of college students are female. Literacy and education
for both girls and boys will prove to be instrumental in reconstruction.
Towards a Peaceful and Equitable Future?
It’s difficult to have optimism when dealing with the long-lasting impacts
of a post-colonial, post-conflict, poverty-stricken, HIV-ridden nation, but it
is inspiring to see the emerging majority, with such limited means, strive to
heal Rwanda. Hopefully, the presence of women in the economic and political sectors
will contribute toward protection, peace, and equity amongst all Rwandans.
For more information on women rebuilding Rwanda please visit www.profemme.org.rw,
www.avega.org.rw and www.rwandawomennetwork.org.