The Rwandan genocide, which took the lives of an estimated 800,000 people, the majority of whom were Tutsis, erupted on April 6, 1994. Fueled by ethnic divisions between Hutus and Tutsis dating back to Belgium’s colonial rule, which began after the First World War, the killing was complete in just 100 days.
The Belgians favored the Tutsi minority among the country’s three ethnic groups—the Hutus, Tutsis, and Twas—for having European facial features. They gave Tutsis higher education opportunities and administrative office positions while discriminating against the Hutu majority. They also registered identity cards for each person to distinguish Tutsis from the Hutus and the Twas. Officially delineating identities through registration fed resentment among the Hutus, setting the stage for the ethnic conflict that led to the genocide in 1994.
Before the Belgians lost colonial rule in 1962, the Hutu majority rallied political support and took over the government. A series of coups eventually led a Hutu, Juvenal Habyarimana, to take the presidency in 1973. The Hutus’ political gain led thousands of Tutsis to flee because of an increase in discrimination and violence, even killing. Tutsi refugees poured into neighboring countries, later giving birth to the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF), the group that would ultimately end the genocide.
During Habyarimana’s presidency, in October 1990, the Tutsi-led RPF attempted to invade from neighboring Uganda. Habyarimana exaggerated the incident to gain further support from Hutus: Tutsis were painted as the enemy of the state and the Hutu political government set up a campaign to incite hatred of the rival ethnic group. Human rights activist and historian Alison Des Forges wrote in 1999: “From the start, those in power were prepared to use physical attacks as well as verbal abuse to achieve their ends. They directed massacres of hundreds of Tutsi in mid-October 1990 and in five other episodes before the 1994 genocide. In some incidents, Habyarimana’s supporters killed Hutu opponents—their principal political challengers—as well as Tutsi, their declared ideological target.” Thus, when Habyarimana’s plane was shot down on April 6, 1994, the Hutu paramilitary organization, called the Interahamwe, was prepared to carry out plans to execute Tutsis in large-scale massacres and tear the country apart with mass rape.
How Sexualized Violence Is Used as a Weapon of War
For ethnic cleansing: Rape was used as a means of stripping Tutsi women of their dignity and identity. This is part of the tactic to treat Tutsis as subhuman, as “cockroaches,” which they were called in the hate propaganda. From the rape testimonies, it was as if the Hutu raped to say, “You are nothing to us. We will do to you what we want.” The mutilations of Tutsi women say that more than anything. Many Hutu women were raped as well, often because they were affiliated with Tutsi men. Mutilation was used as a way to forcibly sterilize Tutsi women to stop them from having children. Also, in a patriarchy such as Rwanda, any forced pregnancies result in babies who take the father’s—the perpetrator’s—ethnicity. Another way in which sexualized violence was used to ethnically cleanse was through the transmission of HIV. Women in Rwanda “were taunted by their genocidal rapists, who promised to infect them with HIV,” according to a 2006 briefing paper from the United Nations Population Fund.
The U.N. defines ethnic cleansing as “a purposeful policy designed by one ethnic or religious group to remove by violent and terror-inspiring means the civilian population of another ethnic or religious group from certain geographic areas.” We are using the term here because ethnic cleansing not only makes women subject to outright murder, but also controls the threat of their bodies as the means of reproduction. For instance, women have been raped in order to occupy "inferior" wombs with "superior" sperm, or forced to have abortions or sterilizations (as have men of "inferior" groups) in order to end future reproduction. In some conflicts, women are also subject to the sex-specific political torture of forcing them to bear the child of their torturer in order to break their will.
To degrade and terrorize women: It is clear that in addition to the widespread use of rape as a means of ethnic cleansing, sexualized violence was also meant to tear apart women because of their gender alone—in many cases, men said they had chosen “beautiful” women as a means of proving dominance.
Patterns of Violence
- Organized propaganda fueled murder and sexualized violence in Rwanda perhaps more than in any other conflict. The largely Hutu-controlled print media and radio broadcast hatred against Tutsi women, often through the use of cartoons that portrayed women as sex objects. In 1990, the newspaper Kangura published a list of “Ten Commandments” that included lines such as "Every Hutu must know that the Tutsi woman, wherever she may be, is working for the Tutsi ethnic cause," and "Every Hutu must know that our Hutu daughters are more worthy and more conscientious as women, as wives and as mothers. Aren’t they lovely, excellent secretaries, and more honest!" In her book Supranational Criminal Prosecution of Sexual Violence, Netherlands-based criminal law expert Anne-Marie de Brouwer says that Tutsi women were shown to be “sexual weapons that would be used by the Tutsi to weaken and ultimately destroy the Hutu men.” De Brouwer posits that Hutu men felt snubbed by Tutsi women, which can be seen in a statement she says was uttered by a perpetrator of rape: “You Tutsi women think you are too good for us.”
- Llezlie Green, the author of Propaganda and Sexual Violence in the Rwandan Genocide: An Argument for Intersectionality in International Law, writes that media propaganda prior to the Rwandan genocide that portrayed Tutsi women as “evil seductresses, transformed into pistols to conquer Rwanda” contributed to the use of sexual violence during the genocide. “The existence of such hate propaganda targeting Tutsi women supports the argument that the sexual violence was not a mere side effect of the conflict but rather an integral part of the genocidal campaign,” she writes.
- By presenting Tutsi women to be overly sexual in a society where a woman’s virginity is important, it sends the false message that Tutsi women are more deserving of the sexual violence and the humiliation inflicted on them during the genocide.
- Rape came from all sides. The Interahamwe carried out most of the sexualized violence, but so did the Rwandan Armed Forces and civilians. While no direct orders have been found, there is evidence that military leaders encouraged their men to rape.
- The public nature of the rapes—women were left splayed on public roads after rape, often with mutilated genitalia; they were raped out in the open more often than in their own homes—is also perhaps unique to Rwanda. The message was clear: This can happen to you.
- Mutilation was often employed to completely destroy women’s bodies—to take away their uniquely Tutsi features, such as noses or long fingers, not to mention mutilations of breasts and vaginas. Women were often raped with objects like sharpened sticks or machetes, or tortured with boiling water or acid. The mutilation served a greater purpose: to prevent women from having Tutsi children.
- Forced marriage or group sexual slavery. Some Tutsi women chose to stay with Hutu men who forced them to marry them during the genocide. They built these men up for not doing them any harm, despite the killings they might have committed of other Tutsi families. Rape, as well as the killing and torture of family members, kept these women in a form of coerced slavery. In terms of sexual slavery, Human Rights Watch reported in 1996 that “women were subjected to sexual slavery and held collectively by a militia group or were singled out by one militia man, at checkpoints or other sites where people were being maimed or slaughtered, and held for personal sexual service. The militiamen would force women to submit sexually with threats that they would be killed if they refused.”
- Rape in the Rwandan genocide was particularly sadistic at times. HRW reported, “Tutsi women were raped after they had witnessed the torture and killings of their relatives and the destruction and looting of their homes. According to witnesses, many women were killed immediately after being raped. Other women managed to survive, only to be told that they were being allowed to live so that they would ‘die of sadness.’"
“Rape was the rule, and its absence the exception,” U.N. Special Rapporteur on Rwanda Rene Degni-Segui wrote in a 1996 report in which he estimated that between 250,000 to 500,000 women and girls were raped in the course of the genocide.
Degni-Segui arrived at these numbers by evaluating the documented rape cases and the number of births resulting from genocidal rape. For him, the 15,700 incidents of rape documented by the Rwanda Ministry for Family and Protection of Women had to be a seriously underreported number—many women take years to report rape, if ever. Also, the figures given by doctors that there was one birth for every 100 rapes, he found, left out women who were raped and then killed. Considering the missing information, Degni-Segui chose the 250,000-500,000 range to capture the atrocities omitted by other reports. “Rape was systematic and was used as a ‘weapon’ by the perpetrators of the massacres. This can be estimated from the number and nature of the victims as well as from the forms of rape,” he wrote.
In a more conservative estimate, Dutch researchers Catrien Bijleveld, Aafke Morssinkhof, and Alette Smeulers count 354,440 women, both survivors and those who were killed or died, to have been raped. They arrived at their figure by looking at testimonies of women who said they were raped during the genocide and looking at pregnancies as a result of rape. They then combined this number with the women who were raped but did not survive. They looked at reported figures of pregnancies from genocidal rapes and quantified the statements “Rape was the rule” and “Almost all surviving Tutsi women were raped.”
Cultural Gender Attitudes
Rape carried a stigma in Rwandan society even before the genocide. Survivors of rape are marginalized in their communities and are seen unfit to marry, according to Laetitia Nyirazinyoye and Maggie Zraly, the authors of an ethnographic study of resilience among survivors of genocide-rape in southern Rwanda.
A woman’s value is placed on her marriageability and since her virginity determines her ability to marry, unmarried women or girls who were raped disrupt this culture’s normative standards. In Rwandan society, according to Donatilla Mukamama and Petra Brysiewicz, authors of The Lived Experience of Genocide Rape Survivors in Rwanda, this loss of virginity, this “sexual transition is celebrated within a marriage where, from that moment on, a girl is called a woman. The Rwandan girls perceived their virginity as an important part of them that allowed them to be classified as girls and so it became a form of identity.” Rape survivors in Rwanda have often expressed their lack of identity.
Widows who were raped during the genocide held on to their “feminine” identity, but they had fewer opportunities for remarriage.
In a report called “Shattered Lives: Sexual violence during Rwandan genocide and the aftermath,” Binaifer Nowrojee, executive director of the Open Society Initiative for Eastern Africa, published very graphic testimonies of rape. The report contains testimonies from 25 women who experienced some form of sexualized violence or were raped during the genocide. Their testimonies are categorized into: rape by militia (7 accounts), rape by military (5 accounts), collective sexual slavery (2 accounts), individual sexual slavery or forced marriages (5 accounts), mutilation (2 accounts), and rape of Hutu women (4 accounts).
Here is one excerpt about Elizabeth, who was 29 years old and living in Kigali with her husband when the killing began. The militia came to their house while they were eating dinner with a group of people. She said:
About 10 of them came. They picked two of the women in the group: a 25-year-old and a 30-year-old and then gang-raped them. When they finished, they cut them with knives all over while the other Interahamwe watched. Then they took the food from the table and stuffed it into their vaginas. The women died. They were left dead with their legs spread apart. My husband tried to put their legs together before we were told to get out of the house and to leave the children behind. They killed two of our children. My husband begged them not to kill us, saying that he did not have any money on him, but that he had shoes and secondhand clothes that he sells at the market. He gave them all the clothes. Then, one Interahamwe said, "You Tutsi women are very sweet, so we have to kill the man and take you."
Elizabeth's husband was killed and the head of the militia took her to his house, where she was raped. Ultimately, she managed to escape.
One survivor, who was gang-raped and beaten unconscious, “woke up only to witness the killing of people all around her.” With the pain of what happened to her still affecting her daily life and ability to work, 10 years later, she told London-based NGO African Rights:
I regret that I didn’t die that day. Those men and women who died are now at peace whereas I am still here to suffer even more. I’m handicapped in the true sense of the word. I don’t know how to explain it. I regret that I’m alive because I’ve lost my lust for life. We survivors are broken-hearted. We live in a situation which overwhelms us. Our wounds become deeper every day. We are constantly in mourning.
- Men with HIV purposefully raped and infected women. A 2000 study of more than 1,000 “genocide widows” showed that 67 percent of rape survivors were HIV positive, according to the U.N. But as yet, experts have been unable to determine clearly whether HIV rates have risen overall due to rape in conflict. A recent epidemiological study found that there is “insufficient evidence” that HIV transmission increases either during conflict or in refugee populations. Published in The Lancet in 2007, the study analyzed data from Democratic Republic of Congo, southern Sudan, Rwanda, Uganda, Sierra Leone, Somalia, and Burundi. Researchers report that although rape may increase an individual survivor’s risk of contracting disease, there are not enough reliable data to show that systematic rape raises the overall prevalence of HIV in a given country. Previous studies may have been conducted poorly, or may have been skewed by geographical access restricted to urban areas with higher disease rates, according to the authors. More time-sensitive information needs to be gathered in countries experiencing conflict, they concluded.
- Husbands abandoned wives who had been raped.
- Women suffered forced pregnancies and induced abortions on themselves.
- Gonorrhea and syphilis were just a couple of the STDs women suffered as a result of rape.
- Only 6 percent of rape victims during the Rwanda genocide sought medical treatment, according to a 1999 “Survey on Violence against Women in Rwanda” by the Association of Widows of the April Genocide.
The 1998 International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) trial of Jean-Paul Akayesu, a Rwandan mayor who did nothing to prevent the rape and murder of his citizens and even orchestrated particular killings, was the first case to name rape as a crime against humanity. The court defined rape as a physical invasion of a sexual nature committed under circumstances that are “coercive.” However, when the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) began its trials, they did not follow suit. Instead, the trials defined rape as nonconsensual. The ICTY successfully prosecuted rape in the 2001 trial of Dragoljub Kunarac, but it found the enslavement of women in Foča, in eastern Bosnia, negated consent, rather than calling it “coercive” as in the Akayesu trial. The ICTR therefore did set a legal precedent by prosecuting rape, but not on the legal definition of rape.
In Akayesu, the ICTR found that rape and sexualized violence, in its opinion, “constitute genocide in the same way as any other act as long as they were committed with the specific intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a particular group, targeted as such. Indeed, rape and sexual violence certainly constitute infliction of serious bodily and mental harm on the victims and are even, according to the Chamber, one of the worst ways of inflict [sic] harm on the victim as he or she suffers both bodily and mental harm.”
(Nancy Sai/published on February 8, 2012)