How Gender Disparities during the Rwandan Genocide Transformed Regional Human Rights
Author: Ekeoma Ugo Ezeh
Translated into Spanish by the Author
Unique to the Rwandan genocide is the manner in which everyday citizens were the main perpetrators of violence. Propaganda, mainly through radio and newspapers, played a very large part in the Rwandan genocide and its convincing power incensed Rwandans with little to no government affiliations to pick up arms against their neighbors and friends. In this way, the genocide was truly a nationwide community affair. Given the manner in which the genocide penetrated and upturned even the most rural communities, this paper explores how the Rwandan genocide disproportionately affected women and girls and further how its distinct consequences for women and girls affected human rights governance and mechanisms in Rwanda and in the region going forward.
Propaganda against Tutsi women
The propaganda reinforcing enmity between Hutus and Tutsis played a key role in galvanizing everyday Hutus to become genocidaires. Much of this propaganda took to specifically villainizing Tutsi women, characterizing them as deceitful seductresses. This trope sprang from existing cultural stereotypes whose roots laid in Rwanda’s colonial past (see History.com Editors, 2019). All Tutsis were seen as traitorous government agents of some sort, and Tutsi women were seen as tools of Tutsi men used to infiltrate Hutu society (Green, 2002, p. 747). This sentiment was exemplified in what was known as the Hutu 10 Commandments, which were first published in the popular newspaper Kangura. The Commandments as a whole encourage the idea that all matters of governing, no matter how large or small, should only be carried out by Hutus. Further, the first three commandments address Tutsi women specifically:
- Every Hutu should know that a Tutsi woman, wherever she is, works for the interest of her ethnic Tutsi group. Consequently, we should consider a traitor every Hutu who:
- marries a Tutsi woman;
- befriends a Tutsi woman;
- employs a Tutsi woman as a secretary or concubine.
- Every Hutu should know that our Hutu daughters are more suitable and dutiful in their roles as women, wives, and mothers of the family. Are they not more wonderful, good secretaries and more honest?
- Hutu women, be vigilant and try to bring your husbands, brothers, and sons back to reason. (van Haperen, 2012, p. 105)
Clear in these three commandments is an attempt from the broader Hutu society to protect Hutu men and Hutu families from the destructive grasp of Tutsi women. This paradigm created an especially large target on Tutsi women during the genocide.
One of the most obvious and perhaps to be expected ways in which women and girls were disproportionately affected by the genocide was by falling victim to rape and sexual abuse. Some estimate that there were between 250,000 and 500,000 rapes during the Rwandan genocide (Green, 2002, p. 751). Genocide propaganda reduced Tutsi women to their sexuality and accused them of using their sexuality to trick Hutu men. Given the environment of hatred and violence, these perceptions led to a cruel curiosity among Hutu perpetrators. The combination of the taboo surrounding interaction with Tutsi women and the extreme manner in which Hutu stereotypes sexualized them contributed to many Hutu genocidaires using the conflict as an opportunity to test the veracity of their preconceived notions about Tutsi women by taking advantage of them.
Rape survivors have recounted statements of their violators such as:
We want to see how sweet Tutsi women are.
You Tutsi women think that you are too good for us.
We want to see if a Tutsi woman is like a Hutu woman.
If there were peace you would never accept me. (Green, 2002, p. 749)
In these statements, it is easy to see how propaganda directly affected the methods with which Hutu genocidaires chose to carry out the genocide. Women and girls were also victims of other types of gender-based violence during the genocide. There are reports of genocidaires mutilating women’s sexual body parts, publicly humiliating them by forcing them to be naked in public, forcing rape victims to kill their children, and many other atrocities (Green, 2002, p. 751).
Women’s and girls’ suffering during the genocide is somewhat conspicuous; however, often left unconsidered is the physical, emotional, social, and cultural ramifications following these women and girls after the genocide. Certain aspects of Rwandan culture exacerbated the negative effects of sexual abuse faced by female victims. The following are some examples Green (2002) outlines of Rwandan cultural sentiments surrounding the experiences of women and girls during the genocide. (Disclaimer: These cultural sentiments were prevalent at the time of the genocide and may or may not be true today):
- Sexual acts were considered taboo to talk about openly and were culturally forbidden outside the confines of marriage. Hence, rape or other sexual abuse brought on stigmatization and sometimes ostracization, especially for those victims who became pregnant as a result of rape.
- Due to cultural expectations of pre-marital virginity, many unmarried women and girls who were victims of sexual abuse found it difficult to marry after the genocide.
- Fertility and the number of children a woman had were considered forms of cultural capital in Rwandan society. Many women and girls who survived physical mutilation during the genocide were left unable to have children and/or unable to take care of and/or nurse the children they already had.
- The stigmatization surrounding unwed mothers and children of rape contributed to occurrences of abortion and infanticide (p. 753-755).
This combination of physical trauma and disenfranchisement from cultural identity was reported to have lasting psychological effects on victims of sexual abuse. Following the genocide, many victims were known to flee their villages and/or exhibit mental instability (Degni-Ségui, 1996). These atrocities not only affected women and girls individually but also impacted the state of the nation as a whole, given that just two years after the genocide, the Rwandan population was estimated to be 70 percent female (Shattered Lives, 1996).
Hutu women as combatants
Often overlooked is the role Hutu women played in facilitating and participating in the genocide. This oversight is closely related to the cultural cognitive dissonance in Rwandan society regarding what is considered a contradictory phenomenon. It is difficult, under Rwandan cultural paradigms, to reconcile the view of a woman as a peacemaker, caretaker, and mother with that of a woman as a killer and genocidaire (Brown, 2014, p. 451).
Many female perpetrators claim that their involvement in the genocide was the result of coercion or force, both direct and indirect, though this appraisal is denied by some victims. Whichever the case, Hutu women were reported to have participated in the genocide as peripherally as revealing the locations of Tutsis in hiding and as directly as engaging in the rape of Tutsi boys (Brown, 2014, p.458-459).
The reluctance to accept this reality, or perhaps the inability to comprehend it, made the post-genocide reintegration of female genocidaires fairly seamless. Many female perpetrators were not obligated to go through the rehabilitation or reintegration processes (Brown, 2014, p. 462) required of their male counterparts.
However, the lack of a facilitated ideological shift, such as that which would be obtained through a formal rehabilitative process, can be problematic. Given the position of the Rwandan woman as mother and childcarer, it would be very easy for female genocidaires to disseminate their divisive ideologies to the younger generation (Brown, 2014, p. 462).
Governance and Human Rights
In addition to the effects explored above, the Rwandan genocide also affected governance and human rights mechanisms in Rwanda and throughout the African region. At the time of the Rwandan, genocide there were two major human rights conventions concerning women and girls ratified by Rwanda: The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).
Both of these conventions are part of universal human rights mechanisms. The African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACRWC), though signed by Rwanda in 1991, was not ratified until 2001 (post-genocide). Notwithstanding their existence, both CEDAW and the CRC are silent on the topic of gender-based violence. Both the CRC and ACRWC assert governments’ responsibility to protect children from sexual abuse and exploitation; however, only the ACRWC addresses
harmful social and cultural practices affecting the welfare, dignity, normal growth and development of the child and in particular: … those customs and practices discriminatory to the child on the grounds of sex or other status (1999).
It is clear that human rights mechanisms relevant to Rwanda at the time of the genocide were severely underequipped to deal with the detrimental consequences of the genocide suffered by Rwandan women and girls.
However, the Rwandan genocide was a catalyst for a major change in the African human rights arena. The former Organisation of African Unity (OAU) had a policy of non-interference that was highly criticized. The policy was likely at least partially in response to Africa’s colonial history and an effort to have the utmost respect for states’ sovereignty. However, many argue that it contributed to political instability and frequent military coups across the continent, as well as a pattern of uninterrupted and unaided civil wars (Edo & Olanrewaju, 2012, p. 49-50).
Further critiques of the OAU included lack of effective development and economic integration policies, issues of funding due to newly independent states’ inability to contribute, and cliques within the Organisation based on old colonial ties (Edo & Olanrewaju, 2012, p. 51). This amalgamation of political and economic shortcomings led to the transition from the Organisation of African Unity to the African Union.
The Constitutive Act of the African Union (henceforth referred to as “the Constitutive Act”), written and agreed upon in July 2000, states in its introduction:
CONSCIOUS of the fact that the scourge of conflicts in Africa constitutes a major impediment to the socio-economic development of the continent and of the need to promote peace, security and stability as a prerequisite for the implementation of our development and integration agenda;
explicating that the humanitarian crises that have occurred on the continent (including the Rwandan genocide) are driving forces in the establishment of a new union. Further, the Constitutive Act asserts:
the right of the Union to intervene in a Member State pursuant to a decision of the Assembly in respect of grave circumstances, namely: war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity; (2000)
Despite prior government knowledge about the upcoming Rwandan genocide (see The Rwandan Patriotic Front, 2017), when the conflict started, the OAU’s policy of non-intervention prevented outside action, or perhaps created an excuse for the lack thereof. This provision in the Constitutive Act, commonly known as the doctrine of non-indifference, is a reaction to the genocide in Rwanda as well as similar tragedies throughout the continent.
Moreover, in support and defense of this new policy, “the Rwandan ambassador drew on his country’s traumatic history to argue forcefully that international ‘business as usual is inadequate and can no longer prevail’” (Williams, 2007, p. 276). Additionally, the Constitutive Act briefly, yet pointedly, asserts “promotion of gender equality” as one of the principles of the new African Union (2000).
Another convention whose advent was surely influenced by the events of the Rwandan genocide is the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa, more commonly known as the Maputo Protocol.
This Protocol was the result of a request made by the Women in Law and Development in Africa (WiLDAF) which, among several other gender equality initiatives, asked that a protocol to the Charter on Women’s Rights be developed (Wandia, 2004). It states as a reason for its existence that “women in Africa still continue to be victims of discrimination and harmful practices” (Maputo Protocol, 2005).
The Maputo Protocol (2005) holds states responsible for protecting women against “all forms of violence, particularly sexual and verbal violence” and specifies that this prohibition applies to “violence [that] takes place in private or public.” The Protocol (2005) also asserts that states are responsible for punishing perpetrators and providing “effective information, rehabilitation, and reparation for victims of violence against women.”
The Maputo Protocol is uniquely impressive in its specificity in addressing issues pertinent to the lasting effects of the Rwandan genocide on women and girls. The following list illustrates such:
- “Protect civilians including women, irrespective of the population to which they belong, in the event of armed conflict” (Maputo Protocol, 2005). The specificity of this provision, had it existed during the genocide, would have protected Tutsi women from violence despite the inter-ethnic animosity between them and their mostly Hutu government.
- “eliminate all stereotypes in textbooks, syllabuses, and the media, that perpetuate such discrimination;” (Maputo Protocol, 2005). As mentioned above, propaganda through the media played a large part in the villainization and later victimization of Tutsi women, this provision prohibits that type of media. Further, this provision could (depending on interpretation) eliminate from mainstream education the exclusive view of women as solely mothers and peacemakers which allowed many female genocidaires to avoid criminal and social consequences following the genocide.
- “protect the reproductive rights of women by authorising medical abortion in cases of sexual assault, rape, incest, and where the continued pregnancy endangers the mental and physical health of the mother or the life of the mother or the foetus” (Maputo Protocol, 2005). As discussed above, victims of rape, especially those left pregnant, suffered immense social and psychological repercussions from their traumas, oftentimes leading to abortion and infanticide. This provision would provide for medically safe abortions and hopefully curtail infanticide.
The Rwandan genocide also had lasting effects on attitudes toward gender in domestic government. Prior to the genocide, “Rwandan women could not by law inherit property, open a bank account without the written consent of their husband and, [represented] just 5 percent of the executive branch of government…” (Brown, 2014, p. 450).
In contrast, in 2003, 39 women were elected to a parliament of 80 members. This was the result of a quota system for women in government (Burnet, 2008, p. 378) as well as a three-ballot system in which there is a general ballot, a women’s ballot, and a youth ballot (Wilber, 2011, p. 66). There are also women’s councils elected by women to represent their interests within government administration as well as gender training that is implemented at all levels of government (Wilber, 2011, p. 66).
Despite all of these advancements in gender parity and emphasis on issues particularly facing women in government, there is doubt surrounding the actual representative capacity of these developments, especially for rural women who have trouble accessing voting at all (Burnet, 2008, p. 368-369). Notwithstanding, these criticisms have more to do with Rwanda’s authoritarian form of government than they do with gender equality.
Conclusively, the Rwandan genocide was a horrific occurrence, especially because of its expansion out of the political realm into community life and the proximity with which it reached each member of society.
The genocide disproportionately affected women and girls mainly through sexual violence during the genocide and the cultural and psychological effects of that violence following the genocide. However, the jolt of the tragedies the genocide inflicted on Rwandans and Africans more broadly dramatically changed African human rights mechanisms in their efforts to protect women and girls from future similar occurrences.
Further, the face of the Rwandan government completely changed in the years following the genocide, with more women than ever before involved with national politics. Though there is still much work to be done (i.e. addressing the role of female genocidaires), the reality that the Rwandan genocide’s disproportionate effect on women and girls catalyzed an improvement in regional and national attitudes toward gender issues and gender parity through governance and human rights mechanisms is undeniable.
List of References
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Ekeoma Ugo Ezeh is a master’s student at the University for Peace studying International Law and Human Rights. She possesses a Bachelor of Arts in Economics with minors in Women and Gender Studies and Sociology from Utah State University. Ugo has a professional background in diversity, equity, and inclusion, and a passion for institutional equity and intercultural understanding. In her free time, she enjoys reading, watching movies, and learning new languages.