Select Top Stories From Herizons

Rwanda's Rape Victims Speak Out  by S. Ka Hon Chu, A.M. de Brouwer
Rwanda's Rape Victims Speak Out

In the 100 days of genocide that ravaged the small Central African nation of Rwanda from April until July 1994, about one million Tutsi and Hutu people were killed, and an estimated 250,000 to 500,000 women and girls were raped.

According to a United Nations report, rape was the rule, its absence the exception. Sexual violence occurred everywhere, and no one was spared. Grandmothers were raped in front of their grandchildren; girls witnessed their families being massacred before being taken as sex slaves; fathers were forced to have sex with their daughters. Many women were murdered following rape. Almost all of the women who did survive the genocide were victims of sexual violence or were profoundly affected by it.
 

Fifteen years later, the impact of the sexual violence endured by survivors continues to be monumental, threatening their daily survival. An astounding 70 per cent are HIV-positive. Recognizing this, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution in 2004 affirming that survivors of sexual violence are among those who face the greatest hardship in post-conflict Rwanda. Gender inequality and gender-based violence existed in Rwanda prior to the genocide, but the events of 1994 provided a backdrop for rape to be perpetrated against Tutsi women and their sympathizers on a mass scale. The ideology of Hutu power was underscored through the dehumanization of Tutsi women.
 

Before the Genocide:
A Brief History of Colonization in Rwanda

The genocide in Rwanda was one of the most ruthless and
effective of all time. Ostensibly sparked by the death of Hutu
President Juvénal Habyarimana, whose plane was shot down
by unknown assailants above Kigali airport on April 6, 1994,
the event was preceded by a complicated and bloody history
between Tutsi and Hutu.

When Belgian colonialists arrived in Rwanda in 1916, they
favoured the Tutsi minority over the Hutu majority. The
Belgians viewed the Tutsi as more similar to Europeans and,
therefore, deemed them to be more intelligent. The clergy in
Rwanda were complicit in creating and maintaining divisions
between Tutsi and Hutu. Tutsi were awarded better jobs and
had greater educational opportunities, a distinction reinforced
by the development of separate educational systems.
 

The Belgians classified them by their physical traits, too:
they considered Tutsi to be tall, thin and light-skinned and
Hutu to be short, stout and darker skinned. In the early
1930s, to solidify the division between Tutsi and Hutu, the
Belgians produced identity cards classifying individuals
according to their ethnic group: Hutu, Tutsi or Twa. These
identity cards, still in use in the 1990s, led many Tutsi to
their death by readily identifying them to the génocidaires.
***
Between 1959 and 1973, more than 700,000 Rwandan Tutsi
were exiled to neighbouring countries. Tutsi refugees were
barred from returning, despite many peaceful efforts to do so.
Some joined the Rwandan Patriotic Front—the RPF,
commonly referred to as the Inkotanyi—a political and
military movement formed by Tutsi refugees in Uganda to
demand Rwandan unity. On October 1, 1990, the RPF,
seeking to pressure the ruling Rwandan government into a
power-sharing agreement, invaded Rwanda from Uganda.
 

They were repelled by troops from France and Zaire sent to
reinforce the Rwandan government. Tutsi living in Rwanda
were blamed for the RPF attack, and the Rwandan
government massacred about two thousand Tutsi across the
country in apparent retaliation.
 

When President Habyarimana’s plane was shot down on
April 6, 1994, he was returning to Rwanda from peace
negotiations with the RPF in Tanzania. The president was
killed instantly, and with him, all hope for peace.
 

The Atrocities Begin
Within hours of Habyarimana’s death, Hutu began killing
and raping Tutsi, with the aim of complete annihilation.
With the prospects for peace extinguished, the RPF invaded
Rwanda. After ensuring that nationals of Western
governments had safe access out of the country, the world
stood by silently and watched one of the worst massacres in
human history. The genocide ended only when the RPF
overthrew the Hutu regime in July 1994.
 

***
The sexual violence in Rwanda during the genocide was
extreme in its brutality and systematic in its orchestration.
Victims were selected predominantly on the basis of their
gender and their Tutsi ethnicity. Age did not play a role in
who was attacked: Tutsi women and girls of all ages were
raped. The targeting of Tutsi girls and women was spurred in
part by anti-Tutsi propaganda preceding the 1994 genocide, which alleged that the minority Tutsi population was a threat
to the Hutu community. Radio and newspapers, to which
most Rwandans had access, both played a major role in the
genocide. To desensitize the Hutu masses, hate radio station
Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines continuously
referred to Tutsi as cockroaches and snakes.

Sexual violence was also directed at Hutu women considered
moderates: women who were married to Tutsi men, protected
Tutsi individuals or were politically affiliated with Tutsi.
Though much less frequently, sexual violence was perpetrated
against Hutu women and girls with no affiliation with the
Tutsi population—crimes made possible by the prevailing
chaos during the conflict. Men, primarily of Tutsi ethnicity,
were also sexually assaulted, often by the mutilation of their
genitals, which were sometimes displayed in public. In some
cases,Tutsi men and boys were forced to rape Tutsi women or were forced by Hutu women to have sex with them.
 

Women and girls were subjected to the full range of sexual
atrocities. This included rape, gang rape, sexual slavery,
forced incest, forced marriage and amputation or mutilation
of victims’ breasts, vaginas and buttocks, or of features
considered to be Tutsi, such as small noses or long fingers.
Even pregnant women were not spared.
 

***
Rape did occur inside victims’ or perpetrators’ houses, but
more often it was committed in plain view of others, at sites
such as schools, churches, roadblocks and government
buildings. Many women were raped in the bushes where they
had hidden to avoid being discovered. Frequently, rape victims’
corpses were left spread-eagled in public view, as a reminder of
the brutality and power of the genocide’s perpetrators. In
addition to the sexual violence they endured, many women
witnessed crimes such as torture and murder committed
against their loved ones. Many lost their houses and property.
 

The perpetrators of sexual violence were mostly members of
the Hutu militia, the Interahamwe. But rapes were also
committed by Presidential Guards, military soldiers of the
Rwandan Armed Forces (FAR), the Rwandan police and
civilians, as well as by international soldiers—most notably the
French, who were stationed in the southwest of the country
under a UN mandate to supposedly establish and maintain a “secure humanitarian area” called Opération Turquoise.
 

Many government officials and leaders of the militia and
the military were complicit. They knew that rape was
being committed, and there is evidence that leaders
encouraged or ordered their men to rape Tutsi women or
condoned the commission of sexual violence by not
intervening. Hutu women from all walks of life also
perpetrated sexual violence by raping boys and men, by
violating Tutsi women with objects and by facilitating or
ordering their rape.
 

The Aftermath
The devastating consequences of conflict continue long after
the hostilities have ended. In the case of Rwanda, the aftereffects
of the sexual violence inflicted on women and girls
during the genocide have been particularly severe. With so
many of their loved ones dead, many of these women and
girls have had to forge a solitary path. Their own
communities, and often the remaining members of their
families, have shunned them because of the stigma
associated with rape and HIV.
 

Kept on the outskirts of society and living among former
génocidaires, survivors are easy prey for retaliation by
perpetrators hoping to silence truth and prevent their victims
from implicating them for their past horrific deeds. Survivors
face not only social isolation but appalling poverty, as well as continuing physical and psychological trauma from the
indescribable brutality they suffered and witnessed.
 

In many cases, the grief and trauma afflicting these
embattled women are further compounded by the burden of
caring for the injured and the orphaned. And even before the
memory of genocide had begun to fade, many women bore
children conceived as a result of rape. Although some women
resorted to self-induced abortions, an estimated 2,000 to
15,000 “children of hate,” or enfants mauvais souvenir
(children of bad memories) were born after the genocide.
 

Rape and other acts of violence carried out in the scope of
war considerably increase women’s vulnerability to sexually
transmitted diseases. HIV and other sexually transmitted
infections have been described as the legacy left to women
raped during the genocide. Women and girls are especially
vulnerable to HIV infection during periods of conflict, since
families and communities are broken up and displaced. The
injuries that often result from rape, such as tearing and
abrasions, further increase victims’ risk of infection. In Rwanda,
the HIV rate in rural areas increased dramatically, from one
percent before the onset of the genocide to 11 percent in 1997.
 

***
Today, survivors continue to experience significant gaps in
access to health care. Only an estimated 28 percent of
Rwandan households affected by HIV/AIDS are able to
afford basic health care, and many decide to forego it
altogether. A 2008 UN report revealed that only 53 percent
of adults in need of antiretroviral treatment are receiving it.
Even where treatment and support are available, the stigma
attached to HIV-positive status has impeded many
Rwandans from using those services.
 

Ironically, while many survivors living with HIV lack
access to medical treatment and a basic standard of wellbeing,
those accused of high-level participation in the
genocide awaiting or undergoing trial at the International
Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda receive antiretroviral
treatment and health care in prison. Though a policy was
implemented in 2004 to provide antiretroviral treatment for
witnesses and potential witnesses, treatment is available only
to the few who testify. With access to antiretroviral
treatment and health care already a problem, women and
girls also bear the largest burden of care for family members.
 

***
Poverty is an additional constraint on women’s ability to
reclaim their lives after rape. Of Rwandan families living in
poverty, 60 percent are headed by women. Overall, 34 percent
of women lead households in Rwanda, of which widows
constitute 21 percent.Women’s experiences of poverty may be
more acute than those of men because of a number of genderbased
forms of exclusion. For instance, although women in
Rwanda play a greater role in agriculture (93 percent of farmers
are women), women continue to experience difficulty owning
land and other farming assets, regardless of legal changes that
technically permit women’s ownership.
 

In Search of Justice
Since the genocide, there have been a number of positive
legislative changes in Rwanda, including laws that guarantee
women and girls the same rights as men and boys to inherit
property. The 2003 Rwandan Constitution provides equal
protection under the law for all, as well as protection against
discrimination, including discrimination on the basis of sex
or HIV status.
 

***
Although Rwanda’s existing penal code prohibits and
punishes rape, prosecutions are rarely pursued. Inadequate
police training in the effective investigation of sexual assault
and the absence of a standard protocol for conducting such
inquiries have reportedly led to inconsistent court verdicts,
confusion among law enforcement and government officials,
and inattention to sexual violence against women. In May 2005, a Gender Desk was created within the Rwandan National Police to deal with some of these problems. Police have been trained to address sexual and gender-based violence, and the Gender Desk offers a nationwide toll-free telephone service for reporting these crimes.

According to UNIFEM, in 2006 the Gender Desk enabled the Rwandan
Police to refer 1,777 rape cases for prosecution, resulting in
803 convictions. Nevertheless, national legislation that
clearly identifies and provides redress for violence against
women has not been implemented.
 

Rwanda’s genocide law recognizes rape and sexual torture
as acts of genocide and as crimes against humanity,
punishable by a maximum term of life imprisonment. Along
with crimes committed by the planners and supervisors of
the genocide, rape and sexual torture are recognized as
category one crimes, or crimes deemed to be the most severe
and the highest priority for prosecution.

Under an amended genocide law of 2008, the semitraditional
gacaca courts, presided over by individuals with
“high integrity” elected from the community, began to try the
alleged perpetrators of rapes committed during the 1994
genocide. Prior to this amendment, gacaca courts had
jurisdiction to deal with all crimes related to the genocide
except category one crimes, which were slated for prosecution
before national courts. In light of the enormous number of
individuals accused of category one crimes, however, and the
amount of time required to process these cases before national
courts, cases of sexual violence not yet prosecuted, involving
some 6,808 persons, were redirected to gacaca courts.
 

One notable feature of the gacaca is the training provided
to gacaca judges on how to interact with survivors of sexual
violence in court. Trials involving sexual violence are also
required to proceed in closed session to protect survivors
from stigmatization and intimidation by community
members supporting the accused. In addition, the genocide
law of 2008 stipulates that trauma counsellors must be
available for survivors of sexual violence, to help them cope
with their past experiences and the trial process itself.
 

However, when survivors find the courage to come forward,
the justice system too often fails to guarantee their physical
security. Between 1995 and mid-May 2008, about 167
genocide survivors were murdered. Witnesses, judges and
members of the gacaca courts have also been targeted.
 

Accordingly, many survivors express fear of attending gacaca
because of the threats of intimidation or death at the hands of
those related to the accused génocidaires. Many also point out
that the gacaca does not provide them with a sense of justice;
many rapists receive short sentences and are already being
released into the community in exchange for their confessions.
 

Women in Rwanda Today
Rwanda’s population was 70 percent female immediately
following the genocide. Given this demographic imbalance,
women have assumed previously inconceivable roles as heads
of households, community leaders and financial providers.
Women occupy 56 percent of the seats in Rwanda’s
parliament—the highest proportion in the world—and they
are well represented at various levels of government.Women
also account for 55 percent of the workforce and own 41
percent of Rwandan businesses.
 

***
Women are building the future of Rwanda, but sexual
violence is an issue that still urgently requires attention.
Enabling survivors to speak without fear or shame about their
experiences is imperative. Survivors’ stories also remind us to
remain vigilant against the sexual violence that threatens
women both in and outside of conflict situations. Many
survivors, however, must have their basic needs met before
they can begin the process of healing and speaking out.
 

The international community can contribute by raising
awareness of sexual violence, mobilizing national governments
into action and contributing to reparation initiatives and
justice projects. Survivors of sexual violence are a living
testament to our collective abandonment of them, but they
also represent the promise of transformative change. We
cannot afford to turn our backs on them again. 
 

Excerpted from the book The Men Who Killed Me: Rwandan
Survivors of Sexual Violence © 2009, edited by Anne-Marie
de Brouwer and Sandra Ka Hon Chu; photography by Samer
Muscati. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Douglas &
McIntyre, a division of D&M Publishers Inc.