In 1994, Rwanda witnessed a genocide in which 800,000 people were killed over a period of 100 days.
The roots of the genocide lie in decades of political power struggle between the Hutus and the Tutsis, in colonial and postcolonial relations, and in a tangle of definitions of ethnic identity. Therefore, to summarize what caused the genocide is a long task. During the years leading up to the genocide the social and political environment in Rwanda grew restless because there were rumours that a Tutsi revolutionary force was grouping up in the neighbouring country Uganda. Hutu rulers became afraid of losing power, and begun steadily preparing the country for war.
Most radio stations at the time were controlled by the Hutu government and from 1990 onwards the media was used as a propaganda machine against all Tutsis and moderate Hutus in Rwanda. At the same time, the Hutu government trained and recruited hundreds new militias.
The genocidal killing began on April 6, 1994, after the plane of the Hutu leader Habyarimana was shot down and Habyarimana was killed. The real identity behind the shooting remains unknown till this day, but Hutu extremists immediately used the event to justify the initiation of mass killings that the government had secretly been planning for months.
The killings begun immediately. Thousands of men, women, and children were tortured, killed, and their houses were often looted and burned down.
In addition to the killings, during the spring of 1994 500,000 women were violently raped. Rape during the genocide was particularly brutal because it was used as a weapon of war. Many of the women were physically mutilated and psychologically scarred for life.
Today, 18 years later, the effects of these rapes are still very real. Approximately 15,000 children were born out of these rapes and thousands of women and children were affected with HIV. The stigma caused by rape has forced these women and children to live on the margins of society. The women are silenced and neglected by their community and families; they constantly struggle to obtain dignified sources of income, lack access to medical aid, and lack economic security.
When the genocide happened Nyira (Nyirangendahimana) was 20 years old. She had a big family. She was one of 13 children. During the spring of 1994, however, her entire family was killed. When the killings began Nyirangendahimana ran and tried to hide, but was quickly found by a group of men. They raped her but were uninterested in killing her. Once she managed to escape she carried on walking without knowing where to go. She then met a man whom she had never seen before. He took her to his house. For a moment she thought she was safe, but this man locked her in a room and kept her there for the duration of the genocide, systematically raping her every day. She said it was like “not being a woman, not like being a human being.” After the genocide the man was put to prison for killing many people. He wasn’t charged for rape.
After the genocide Nyirangendahimana found out she was pregnant and later gave birth to a baby boy. Her family house in the village was destroyed, so for a while she lived in a shelter. She had to give her body to be able to eat. Today, she is 40 and she still doesn’t have a house. She lives in a small room that she rents from the neighbour. She’s very ill, but since she’s unable to work she’s unable to afford medication or adequate meals.
“My life is bad,” she says. “I’ve spent two months in the house without working. I cannot work because I am sick. It’s a big problem for me.”
Whenever she can, she does small jobs like cleaning and washing for her neighbours. Her first son died when he was 16, but she now has two other younger children whom she has to look after. Her youngest son is a year and three months old.
“I know the father but he doesn’t accept him. We are not married. He can refuse this baby.”
Nyirangendahimana still lives in the same village where she was born. It is the same village where her family was killed, where she tried to hide during the genocide, where she was violated, and where her first son died. “When your children grow up what will you tell them?” I asked her. “I will tell them the truth,” she said.
Rwanda is traditionally a patriarchal society where women are subordinated and limited by their “natural” role of child-bearers. Even though the 1991 Constitution of Rwanda guarantees equal opportunities for both men and women, women are restricted and limited to a wide array of opportunities outside the household. This has wider implications for women in Rwanda as it contributes to the discrimination against them in profound and systemic ways.
Years before the genocide, it was of tradition that the women were dependent from their husbands, fathers, and male children, and, they were valued by the number of male children they had. Moreover, the image of the ideal women is constructed through the frame of her maternal role. Women therefore, must be fertile, hard working, reserved, and silent. Domestic violence is widely spread due to the stereotypical image of women being portrayed as docile and subordinate. The secondary status of the women in Rwanda is commonly linked to high levels of poverty, with its population depending highly on agriculture for income.
The profound discrimination against women has carried over into a post-genocide Rwanda and poses serious problems for women, particularly given that they now constitute roughly 70% of the population. Many survivors are widows who lost their families in the genocide and found themselves displaced or refugees with no remaining male relatives. Others are women whose husbands fled the country when the the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF)led government took over. Others are young girls whose families were killed or have fled the country. Many households are headed by women who are in turn supporting children of their own, children of relatives, and orphans they have taken in. Their subordinate status continues to disadvantage them as they attempt to rebuild their lives.
As a result of the past and current discrimination, many female genocide survivors have been reduced to an even lower standard of living now that they are widowed or orphaned. Most female genocide survivors have little education, lack marketable skills, and are often denied access to their husband’s or father’s property because they are women.
As the building works for Nyira’s house progress, Women for Rwanda would like to take this opportunity to tell the story of how and why we got here.
This project began in a coffee shop near Holborn, in December 2012, after a university course ‘Rwanda: politics of change.’ The course was run like an action project and tasked the students in the class to propose an initiative to help the thousands of women who were raped during the Rwandan genocide in 1994.
Learning about the problems many women in Rwanda still face as a consequence of the events in 1994 inspired a small group of students to find out if there was actually something they could do to help. This led to the creation of Women for Rwanda (WFR), a grass root organisation that aims to empower women who were made victims of sexual violence during the genocide.
A complex situation
After several months of research and fundraising, WFR travelled to Rwanda to learn more about the problems first-hand, and observe work that’s already being done. What became clear from day one was that the situation for many women was very complex, and it would be difficult, if not impossible, to find a single solution to help all. The stigma caused by rape means that most women are segregated from society in one way or another, some geographically, some by social exclusion, or both. After almost 21 years after the genocide, many of them still struggle to find work, and often do not have family members to support them. Some women have, at times, resulted to sex work in order to make a living and in some cases their health has been affected as a consequence.
On their trip to Rwanda the WFR group met Josee, a Rwandese psychologist who works with a community of women in a number of small villages around Butare, south Rwanda. The clientele of around 60 women whom Josee supports were all exposed to sexual violence during the genocide, and Josee provides them with psychological therapy to help them heal from their traumatic experiences. Josee introduced WFR to one of the communities, and later, through group discussion, the community identified one of the women, Nyira, as the one in most urgent need of help.
Nyira is a mother of two young children, ill and unable to work. The family doesn’t have a home. To have shelter over their heads Nyira rents a small room from her neighbour and pays by doing small household chores such as washing. The women in the community raised Nyira’s situation as the most deserving of help, as, like Josee puts it, “it’s difficult to help anyone heal physically or emotionally, if they don’t have a home”.
Decent housing remains an issue for many vulnerable people in Rwanda, and especially those who survived the genocide. Some, like Nyira, still do not have decent homes, and others, who had houses built for them, face difficulties in paying for repairs such as leaking roofs. Despite considerable efforts by FARG (the Rwanda government fund for survivors), Rwanda’s Auditor General has criticised the organisation for failing to meet housing objectives and for poor quality construction.
How you can help
Thus, as their first project, WFR is building a house for Nyira and her two children in partnership with Survivors Fund (SURF), a UK and Kigali based NGO working in support of vulnerable survivors. The project began this spring by buying Nyira and her children a plot of land. The fundraising is still on-going, but the plan is for Nyira and her children to move into their new home at the end of the summer. You can help make it happen by donating to the project now.
As part of Women for Rwanda‘s project One Woman, One Year, One house, the supper club initiative was born to increase awareness while enjoying a pleasurable experience such as eating. We realised how doing charity per se is a concept of the past century and people are fed up with pictures of misery and grievance, for this we believe that taking to a table the discussion around women empowerment and development is indeed a stronger motivator for change.
Indeed, our guests have found rather pleasurable to share their evening with a conscious audience and of course traditional Rwandese food. It is rather hard, even in a cosmopolite London, to find Rwandese dishes and delicatessen, hence we decided that we had the duty to share one of the million wonders of Rwanda. We decided to serve avocado on a bed of homemade croutons as starter together with homemade bread (all of course watered with the right dose of nectar). The meal proceeded with traditional grilled goat meat -locally sourced- together with plantain and spicy beans. We could not conclude better the dinner than with a plantain cake and Rwandese tea (some of us have spiced it up with a hint of honey rum, unfortunately could not make banana beer, a traditional Rwandese drink).
We hope that this initiative will be the beginning of a new chapter of Women for Rwanda‘s campaigns, fusing dining with awareness and empowerment. If you would like to take part in the sustainable supper club movement, we would be more than happy to welcome you and your friends or cater delicious Rwandese food at your front door andshare our story.
At Women for Rwanda we believe that just because you cannot do everything does not mean you should do nothing.
“We must not be left to utter the words ‘never again’, again and again” Ban Ki-moon, UN secretary general: Commemoration of the twentieth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide.
The recent commemoration of the Rwandan genocide has catapulted the 1994 massacres back into global media interest. On the 7th April 2014, in order to mark the twentieth anniversary of the genocide, a 100-day project of commemoration was launched – a period that symbolically and soberly reflects the 100-day period during which approximately 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were brutally murdered in Rwanda.
Commemoration reminds society of genocidal atrocities, ensuring that the memory of such events is preserved in the collective consensus of society. Moreover, marking the anniversary of monumental moments in history – including the Rwandan massacres, the Holocaust and both World Wars – provides an opportunity for increased learning and knowledge concerning the events that occurred. Therefore to remember and remind society of what happened – before, during and afterwards – remains crucial if atrocities such as the Rwandan genocide are to be part of collective memory and history.
Despite the obvious positive and constructive effects of commemoration, memorial days are often precisely that: a day. A traditional act of commemoration may be marked by a specific day – for example Holocaust Memorial day, which is marked on the 27th January each year. However, can we really expect to remember such complex events in a holistic manner if we only allocate a single day of commemoration? Though it would be unlikely to suggest that the majority of people will commemorate the Rwandan genocide for 100 days, the very fact that the length of the genocide is mentioned is a useful way to remind people of the length of such events. Often, war stories and notable events feature in the news for a couple weeks or so, gathering initial attention so that a response from the global community may be elicited. However, it is an all too familiar story that frequently these major news stories fall from global attention despite the atrocities continuing.
The notion of the 100-day commemoration process actively confronts people with the duration of the Rwandan genocide. The 100-day period functions on a dual basis; not only does it highlight the longevity of the genocide but, paradoxically, it demonstrates the strikingly short amount of time it took to murder nearly one million people. The rate of killing during the Rwandan genocide is one aspect that is so shocking about the events that unfolded. It is startling to note that, had the rate of killings continued for a longer period of time, more people would have been killed in Rwanda than during the Holocaust. The 100-day period of commemoration, therefore, represents a departure from traditional modes of commemoration.
In Rwanda, thousands gathered at the Amahoro football stadium in Kigali to remember and respect the memory of the genocide, including dignitaries and local Rwandans. Twenty years previously, Amahoro – which coincidentally means ‘peace’ – became a site of refuge for thousands of Rwandans against the violence that was occurring across the county therefore making the ceremony, for many attending, even more emotionally charged.
Adding to this emotion, actors re-enacted scenes of violence, essentially encapsulating scenes that were firmly fixed in the memories of many of the ceremony’s attendees. Crying and wailing could be heard as people watched the performance; some were so overwhelmed that they fainted and had to be carried out to receive medical attention. This passionate form of commemoration is markedly different to forms of memorialisation that one expects to witness in the UK, where commemoration services are usually sombre and reserved. However, the re-enactment appeared to function as a cathartic process – a release not just of individual emotions but also allowing for a sense of collective mourning, a nation mourning a generation lost.
Reading the many articles circulating online to mark the anniversary in the UK, I noticed a distinct difference in approach to the service in Kigali. Of course this is inevitable. However, what this difference highlighted for me is the ways in which different nations commemorate important global events. The theme of UK commemoration – in the written form anyway – appeared to focus mainly on a sense of renewal. The Guardian especially featured numerous articles which evoked a forward-looking (almost) optimistic tone. For instance, the issue of increasing levels of women’s rights (an issue that had to be addressed due to the huge number of widows left in the aftermath of the genocide). Titles including, ‘Rwanda’s women make strides towards equality 20 years after the genocide’ and ‘Sweet dreams: Rwandan women whip up popular ice-cream business’, demonstrate how it seems to be women taking Rwanda forward, re-establishing lives that had been brutally ripped apart.
In the context of Women for Rwanda’s interests and concerns, I couldn’t help but read these articles with slight caution. Yes, it is true that following the genocide women now make up 64% of parliamentarians, and there are as many girls as boys gaining both a primary and secondary education. Important issues, however, still remain. During the massacres, up to half a million women were raped – 76% of which are now living with HIV as a result. The issue of rape remains a contentious issue in Rwanda. As a result, victims’ families and the wider community often reject these women. The Guardian article, ‘Widows of the Genocide: how Rwanda’s women are re-building their lives’ articulated the struggles of these women, providing examples of associations (such as Avega) and recognising the position of these women in Rwandese society.
The role of commemoration is not only to remember the past; commemoration allows us to remember those who are still living with the memory of the genocide. Though it is undoubtedly important to remember those that lost their lives during the Rwandan genocide, it is also vital to remember those still suffering from their persecution. Remembering those women whose voices may never be heard remains an essential endeavour of the commemoration of the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
Written by Harriet Drake