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January 2005
Surviving 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 of 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 leaders tackling 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.

Economic Reconstruction
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 parents.

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.

 

 


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