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Women and Genocide in Rwanda

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Human Rights
Wordcount: 3171 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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The small east African country of Rwanda is most commonly known for being the setting of one of the most brutal and efficient genocides in modern history. Traditional narratives of the Rwandan genocide, like those of most genocides and events of mass violence, depict the participants within the scope of their expected roles: men as perpetrators and women as victims. While it is true that males have much higher rates of genocidal participation (Brehm, Uggen, and Gasanabo, 2016), females contribute to the violence more than it is acknowledged. In Rwanda, Hutu females participated in the genocide, both directly through killings, and indirectly through spreading propaganda, encouraging violence, and giving the identities and locations of Tutsis to be killed. Even at the highest level of culpability, females have been prosecuted as instrumental to the killing and torture of thousands of civilians. Data from the court proceedings and witness testimony confirms that a significant number of women take part in genocidal acts alongside men and that their participation needs to be acknowledged in order to fully tell the story of the Rwandan genocide.

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On April 6, 1994, a plane carrying the president of Rwanda was shot down in the capital city of Kigali, this action became the culminating event after decades of ethnic tensions and marked the start of a three month long genocide in which an estimated 800,000 to 1,000,000 minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed across the country. The tensions between the Hutus and Tutsis dates back to the Belgian colonization in the late 1800s; the Belgians highlighted the miniscule differences between the ethnicities to establish a ruling group, this led to them declaring the Tutsis to be more European and, thus, superior to the majority Hutus. Over the next century, even after Rwanda’s independence in 1962, the tensions between the ethnic groups heightened. Throughout the late 1900s, as the Hutus gained political control, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a Tutsi backed militant group based in Uganda, moved into Rwanda and a civil war broke out in 1990. During the civil war, anti-Tutsi sentiment increased among the Hutu population. After the president’s assassination, Hutu extremists seized the opportunity and began the swift and systematic killings of  the Tutsis (Prunier, 1995).

 While all genocides are horrific testaments to what humans are capable of, the Rwandan genocide took this a step further. Before the genocide, the population of the small East African country was roughly seven million. One hundred days later, approximately one million had been killed. The efficiency of the genocide can be attributed to the large level of civilian participation in the violence. “Although state actors orchestrated the genocide, the state relied on civilians to accomplish its goal” (Brehm, 2017, pg. 9). Public officials urged civilians to contribute to the eradication of the Tutsi, which, when paired with radio broadcasts spreading propaganda and hate speech, motivated Hutus across the country to take part in the violence.

 The United Nations Security Council established the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in 1995 “to establish an international tribunal for the sole purpose of prosecuting persons responsible for genocide and other serious violations of international humanitarian law” (UN Security Council, 1994, pg. 2).  This tribunal indicted 93 individuals who they believed to be the most culpable for orchestrating the genocide; 62 of those indicted were sentenced, including Pauline Nyiramasuhuko, who became the first woman to be convicted of genocide and rape as a crime against humanity in an international court (Drumbl, 2013, pg. 562). Mrs. Nyiramasuhuko was the Minister of Family and Women’s Development in Butare, a city in southern Rwanda, when the genocide began. She was accused of using her position to encourage the killings and ordering Hutu forces to rape Tutsi women. She used her position not only to order violence, but also to gain the trust of those fleeing the violence. Accounts tell of Mrs. Nyiramasuhuko telling Tutsi families that the Red Cross was providing sanctuary in a stadium, but when the families arrived they were ambushed by the Interahamwe, tortured and killed (Wood, 2004, pg. 274).

Throughout the trial, Mrs. Nyiramasuhuko maintained her innocence. She insisted that her authority was overestimated, that the men, including her own son who was also indicted by the ICTR, did not commit the violence because of her influence. In her most famous line of defense, Mrs. Nyiramasuhuko insisted she was incapable of violence and  “could not even kill a chicken” (Gentry and Sjoberg, 2015, pg. 80). In contrast to her authoritative demeanor during the genocide, in court she played the role of a powerless woman, and maintained that she was merely a mother and incapable of contributing to any violence. Despite her claims, she was found to be instrumental in inciting the violence and perpetuating the genocide in Butare and was sentenced by the ICTR on June 24th, 2011 to life in prison.

 The ICTR only prosecuted those who they considered to have committed the most serious of genocidal crimes and crimes against humanity; the rest were expected to be tried by the National Courts. Because of the staggering number of defendants and the fact that the majority of prosecutors and judges within the country had fled or been killed during the genocide (Gacaca Report Summary, 2012), the courts could not handle the prosecutions. As a solution to this, the Rwandan government established over 120,000 gacaca courts across the country, a traditional model of restorative justice that was used to handle community disputes informally on a local level. The principals of gacaca were forgiveness and healing within the community. The great majority of defendants were tried through these courts.

 In the local courts, 8.8% of cases involved female defendants. While this percentage seems relatively small, 1,678,881 trials were held through gacaca courts, therefore, at least 147,148 women were charged as participants in some capacity (Gertz, Brehm, and Brown, 2018, pg. 138). The gacaca courts distinguished three categories of involvement: Category 1 was for those who instigated and organized the violence and those who committed rape and sexual torture; Category 2 was for those who killed, injured with intent to kill, tortured, and desecrated corpses; and Category 3 was for property crimes. The third category was the most broad and the majority of defendants were tried as Category 3 offenders, as it covered anyone who looted, sold or obtained property of those killed, anyone who received the stolen property, and even those who benefitted indirectly from the illegal distribution in some way (Ingelaere, 2016).

 Of the 361,590 defendants found guilty of category 2 offenses, 5.5% (approximately 19,887) were women (Brehm, Uggen, and Gasanabo, 2014, pg. 340). Although many of them admitted to their participation, they often cited that they were forced by men to partake in the violence. The threat of harm from the Interahamwe was the most common defense, the women stated that the militia would threaten them and their children if they did not expose the whereabouts of Tutsis (Hogg, 2010, pg. 83-84). Despite the plausibleness of this claim in many cases, the defendants were not always forced to participate and, rather, chose to seek out involvement in the genocide. The accounts of female violence, though often marginalized due to the proportionality to male’s,  are present in the testimonies of those who witnessed the genocide firsthand. In a Human Rights Watch report, an UNAMIR officer is quoted saying: ‘I had seen war before but I had never seen a women carrying a baby on her back kill another woman carrying a baby on her back’ (des Forges, 1999, pg. 197).  With the pervasiveness of the anti-Tutsi sentiment and the large scale acceptance of the killings, it is improbable to believe that women, who constituted 51% of Rwanda’s population in 1994, were insusceptible to voluntary participation.

While women represented 5.5% of both category 1 and 2 defendants, they made up a larger percentage of category 3 defendants at 10.8% (Brehm, Uggen, and Gasanabo, 2016, pg. 731). While there were many women who directly perpetuated genocide through violence, gacaca data shows that women were more likely to be involved in crimes that were peripheral to the killings. Typical charges included taking jewelry and clothing off the bodies, looting the homes of those being killed, and taking victims’ assets, such as animals and land. During the gacaca, many females were accused of encouraging the violence, being “cheerleaders who were singing songs while the men raped and killed the Tutsis” (Smeulers, 2015, pg. 211).

Scholars have suggested that females were more likely to participate in the genocide in ways where the level of involvement fit in with their prescribed social role as mother, wife, and homemaker. “Regardless of any natural (or unnatural) predisposition to perpetrate violence, women were presented with fewer opportunities to do so” (Gertz, Brehm, Brown, 2018, pg. 140). In Rwanda, women were esteemed for their role as mothers. The traditional culture emphasized the life giving powers of women and elevated them within that role (Herndell and Randell, 2013, pg. 76). In the context of the genocide, they continued the motherly persona. When encouraging the violence and calling for the massacre of the Tutsis, women emphasized the rebirth of the Hutu nation. Female support for the genocide has often been categorized within the context of “maternal nationalism” (Gentry and Sjoberg, 2015, pg. 76).  They also continued to fill their role as homemaker during the chaos, taking the property of their murdered neighbors to make better homes and provide for their family.

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Gacaca did not just allow for women to be prosecuted within their community, but also gave women opportunities to fill roles within the legal proceedings as judges, claimants, and witnesses. Gacaca relied on members of the community to handle the proceedings, because no formal education or level of professionalism was required of the judges. It allowed everyone in the community to be involved in the process, regardless of their status. “It must be recognized that gacaca has empowered many groups in society who have often been marginalized in national life, especially women and youth, who have played central roles as gacaca judges and as participants in the general assembly” (Clark, 2011, pg. 153). Women brought forth cases, questioned defendants, and determined sentences. This level of involvement was unprecedented, especially in the rural and traditional communities. When discussing gacaca, scholars concede that it was a significant sources of female empowerment in post-genocide Rwanda.

 While women exerted their influence by contributing to the gacaca proceedings, they also expanded their visibility in society as victims of the genocide, especially sexual violence. The use of rape and sexual torture was pervasive during the massacres, with an estimated 250,000 to 500,000 women and girls raped (Baines, 2003, pg. 489). In 2008, the Rwandan government decentralized cases of rape and allowed for them to be held in gacaca. Prior to this, those cases were reserved for the National Courts (Ingelare, 2016, pg. 65). As gacaca began prosecuting sexual violence, the number of women participating as witnesses and claimants increased. Although the gacaca courts have been criticized for failing to protect the victims’ identities in cases of rape and subjecting them to the social repercussions (Brounéus, 2008), many victims felt empowered by their ability to have their victimization acknowledged and their attacker held accountable. After testifying, a victim told interviewers, “Testifying in gacaca was empowering my heart. I was able to tell people what I went through. It made me feel pleased and stronger. Although it was traumatizing within me, later on it made me feel stronger” (Brouwer and Ruvebana, 2013, pg. 960).

Since the genocide, women have continued to broaden their roles within society. Women became more visible in the public sphere through their involvement in the prosecutions of the perpetrators and in gacaca, as well as their involvement in creating institutions and organizations to help victims of the genocide and restore their communities. Contrastingly, the female perpetrators and their prosecutions also contributed to the legitimization of female leaders. By holding women accountable for inciting and participating in genocide, the Rwandan government and the local communities upheld that women had personal agency and influence within society. This helped to further remove women from the margins of societal influences and establish their presence in multiple roles, rather than just the traditional ones of mother, wife, and housekeeper.

Some scholars also note that post genocide Rwanda provided more opportunities for women due to the large percentage of men that were killed during the genocide and those imprisoned in the aftermath. “Given the demographic imbalance after the genocide, women and even girls stepped up to take on roles as heads of household, community leaders and financial providers, addressing the needs of devastated families and communities” (Herndon and Randell, 2013, pg. 74). Women became the significant majority of free people within Rwanda, and as the country began to rebuild, positions that had previously been largely held by men were now open to women. Currently, Rwanda has the distinction of having the most women in political office in the world, with 61% of the parliamentary seats held by women.

In the aftermath of the genocide in 1994, Rwanda has astounded the global community by its ability to rebuild the country, from the infrastructure and government, to the social fabric. The use of restorative justice is often cited as being a contributor to the unprecedented success that Rwanda has experienced in the past two decades following the mass violence. As scholars continue to study the genocide and the societal context it occurred in, the complexity of mass violence is reaffirmed. As genocide does not have one cause nor one perpetrator, it cannot be explained monolithically. By oversimplifying individual roles and motivations, the factors are not clearly understood. Women cannot be marginalized as simply the victims of violence, and their involvement needs to be acknowledged on every level alongside men’s. Within the global community, genocide and its causes must be understood. By identifying the indicators within a society, global peacekeeping efforts can detect, and, optimistically, prevent genocides in the future.

Works Cited

  • Baines, E. K. (2003). Body politics and the Rwandan crisis. Third World Quarterly, 24(3), 479-493. 
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  • Smeulers, A. (2015). Female Perpetrators: Ordinary or Extra-ordinary Women? International Criminal Law Review, 15(2), 207-253.
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  • Wood, S. K. (2004). A woman scorned for the “least condemned” war crime: precedent and problems with prosecuting rape as a serious war crime in the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. Columbia Journal of Gender and the Law, 13(2), 274.


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