Sexual Violence during the Rwandan Genocide and its Aftermath

ISBN 1-56432-208-4, September 1996



During the 1994 genocide, Rwandan women were subjected to sexual violence on a massive scale, perpetrated by members of the infamous Hutu militia groups known as the Interahamwe, by other civilians, and by soldiers of the Rwandan Armed Forces (Forces Armées Rwandaises, FAR), including the Presidential Guard. Administrative, military and political leaders at the national and local levels, as well as heads of militia, directed or encouraged both the killings and sexual violence to further their political goal: the destruction of the Tutsi as a group. They therefore bear responsibility for these abuses.

Although the exact number of women raped will never be known, testimonies from survivors confirm that rape was extremely widespread and that thousands of women were individually raped, gang-raped, raped with objects such as sharpened sticks or gun barrels, held in sexual slavery (either collectively or through forced “marriage”) or sexually mutilated. These crimes were frequently part of a pattern in which 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.” Often 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. These forced “marriages,” as this form of sexual slavery is often called in Rwanda, lasted for anywhere from a few days to the duration of the genocide, and in some cases longer. Rapes were sometimes followed by sexual mutilation, including mutilation of the vagina and pelvic area with machetes, knives, sticks, boiling water, and in one case, acid.

Throughout the world, sexual violence is routinely directed against females during situations of armed conflict. This violence may take gender-specific forms, like sexual mutilation, forced pregnancy, rape or sexual slavery. Being female is a risk factor; women and girls are often targeted for sexual abuse on the basis of their gender, irrespective of their age, ethnicity or political affiliation.

Rape in conflict is also used as a weapon to terrorize and degrade a particular community and to achieve a specific political end. In these situations, gender intersects with other aspects of a woman’s identity such as ethnicity, religion, social class or political affiliation. The humiliation, pain and terror inflicted by the rapist is meant to degrade not just the individual woman but also to strip the humanity from the larger group of which she is a part. The rape of one person is translated into an assault upon the community through the emphasis placed in every culture on women’s sexual virtue: the shame of the rape humiliates the family and all those associated with the survivor. Combatants who rape in war often explicitly link their acts of sexual violence to this broader social degradation. In the aftermath of such abuse, the harm done to the individual woman is often obscured or even compounded by the perceived harm to the community.

During the Rwandan genocide, rape and other forms of violence were directed primarily against Tutsi women because of both their gender and their ethnicity. The extremist propaganda which exhorted Hutu to commit the genocide specifically identified the sexuality of Tutsi women as a means through which the Tutsi community sought to infiltrate and control the Hutu community. This propaganda fueled the sexual violence perpetrated against Tutsi women as a means of dehumanizing and subjugating all Tutsi. Some Hutu women were also targeted with rape because they were affiliated with the political opposition, because they were married to Tutsi men or because they protected Tutsi. A number of women, Tutsi and Hutu, were targeted regardless of ethnicity or political affiliation. Young girls or those considered beautiful were particularly at the mercy of the militia groups, who were a law unto themselves and often raped indiscriminately.

As Rwandans begin the onerous task of rebuilding a country ravaged by bloodshed and genocide, the burden is falling heavily on Rwandan women. Rwanda has become a country of women. It is currently estimated that 70 percent of the population is female and that 50 percent of all households are headed by women. Regardless of their status Tutsi, Hutu, displaced, returnees all women face overwhelming problems because of the upheaval caused by the genocide, including social stigmatization, poor physical and psychological health, unwanted pregnancy and, increasingly, poverty.

In Rwanda, as elsewhere in the world, rape and other gender-based violations carry a severe social stigma. The physical and psychological injuries suffered by Rwandan rape survivors are aggravated by a sense of isolation and ostracization. Rwandan women who have been raped or who suffered sexual abuse generally do not dare reveal their experiences publicly, fearing that they will be rejected by their family and wider community and that they will never be able to reintegrate or to marry. Others fear retribution from their attacker if they speak out. Often, rape survivors suffer extreme guilt for having survived and been held for rape, rather than having been executed.

This sentiment is further reinforced by some Tutsi returnees, exiles who returned from Zaire, Burundi or Uganda after the genocide, who do not face the trauma of having survived the genocide, although they share the horror of what happened. Some of the returnees view the genocide survivors with distrust and suspicion. These survivors voice resentment against the returnees, including those in government, and criticize them for, among other issues: neglecting the problems of the genocide survivors; falsely denouncing the survivors as genocide “collaborators”; illegally appropriating the land and property of the survivors; and being politically extremist in their blanket denunciation of the Hutu. “There is always the unspoken question that is asked of survivors [by the returnees],” noted Annunciata Nyiratamba of the Association for Widows of the April Genocide (Association des veuves du genocide d’avril, AVEGA), in an interview with Human Rights ration Internationale des Ligues des Droits de l’Homme (FIDH) in March. “ ‘What did you do to survive? Who was a killer? Who was not?’ Those questions are always there and it creates its own dynamic between the survivors and the returnees.”

Victims of sexual abuse during the genocide suffer persistent health problems. According to Rwandan doctors, the most common problem they have encountered among raped women who have sought medical treatment has been sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS (although it is often impossible to know if this is due to the rape). Since abortion is illegal in Rwanda, doctors have also treated women with serious complications resulting from self-induced or clandestine abortions arising from rape-related pregnancies. In a number of cases, doctors have performed reconstructive surgery for women and girls who suffered sexual mutilation at the hands of their attackers. Unfortunately the stigma surrounding sexual abuse often dissuades women from seeking the medical assistance they need.

A large number of women became pregnant as a result of rape during the genocide. Pregnancies and childbirth among extremely young girls who were raped have also posed health problems for these mothers. The “pregnancies of the war,” “children of hate,” “enfants non-desirés” (unwanted children) or “enfants mauvais souvenir” (children of bad memories) as they are known, are estimated by the National Population Office to be between 2,000 and 5,000. Health personnel report that some women have abandoned their children or even committed infanticide, while others have decided to keep their children. In some cases, the mother’s decision to keep the child has caused deep divisions in the family, pitting those who reject the child against those who prefer to raise the child. In others, the child is being raised without problems within the community.

In addition to the social and personal trauma resulting from the injuries suffered from sexual violence, women are also facing dire economic difficulty. As a result of the genocide, many women lost the male relatives on whom they previously relied on for economic support and are now destitute. Women survivors are struggling to make ends meet, to reclaim their property, to rebuild their destroyed houses, and to raise children: their own and orphans. Some Hutu women, whose husbands were killed or are now in exile or in prison accused of genocide, are dealing with similar issues of poverty as well as with the recrimination directed at them on the basis of their ethnicity or the alleged actions of their relatives.

On top of mounting poverty, Rwandan women also face pressing problems due to their second class status under Rwandan law. Although the Rwandan constitution guarantees them full equality under the law, discriminatory practices continue to govern inheritance law, among other areas. Inheritance norms are not codified and are governed under customary law. Although there are a number of contradictory court judgments interpreting customary law, general practice has established that women cannot inherit property unless they are explicitly designated as beneficiaries. Accordingly, thousands of widows and daughters currently have no legal claim to their late husband’s or father’s homes, land or bank accounts because they are women. Widows whose husbands worked for state enterprises or large companies are also facing great difficulties in obtaining their husbands’ pensions. A complicated application procedure, coupled with the intimidation of dealing with the authorities, has deterred many women from pursuing valid pension claims. Hutu widows who were married to Tutsi men are facing particular problems from their Tutsi in-laws who threaten them and drive them off their property. The government has initiated a legal commission to address these issues and to introduce legislation to allow women to inherit equally with men, but the reforms are expected to take a long time.

Rwandan survivors of sexual violence are particularly troubled by the lack of accountability for the abuse they suffered. They want the perpetrators of the violence against them to be held responsible. However, the Rwandan judicial system is facing systemic and profound problems that make the likelihood of justice, for both the genocide perpetrators and their victims, a remote possibility. Some 80,000 prisoners are currently held without trial in prison. Two years after the genocide, the judicial system is still not functioning. Although the lack of justice is not reserved to victims of gender-based abuse in Rwanda, it is clear that rape victims face specific obstacles, including that police inspectors documenting genocide crimes for prosecution are predominantly male and are not collecting information on rape. Many women interviewed by our team, composed solely of women, indicated that they would report rape to a female investigator, but not to a man. These problems within the law enforcement and judicial systems, coupled with the reluctance of women to come forward because of stigma and fear, greatly reduce the likelihood of rape prosecutions.

In dealing with the issues facing women, the current government must address not only the violence experienced during the genocide, but also the systematic subordination of women that has permeated most aspects of women’s lives. As mentioned, the government has already initiated the process of reform of the inheritance laws, but is overwhelmed by the problems caused by the genocide, as well as by the need to change entrenched social attitudes against women. Thus reform efforts are proceeding slowly. Moreover, to date, the justice, law enforcement, health and rehabilitation ministries have no coordinated strategy to address the problems facing women. The need for such a response by the government to the situation of Rwanda’s women cannot be underestimated. Without empowering Rwandan women, the overwhelming majority of the population, to rebuild their lives, the political and social transformation necessary to rebuild the country cannot succeed.

Rwandan women are also at risk of receiving little justice from the international community. In late 1994, the United Nations Security Council created the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, which is tasked with bringing the organizers of the genocide to justice. An international procedure which condemns genocide and holds the perpetrators accountable will send a message that impunity for such crimes will not be tolerated by the international community. However, the International Tribunal faced serious resource constraints, and continues to confront problems of staffing and methodology. With regard to gender-based crimes in particular, these problems are magnified. Although rape constitutes a war crime and a crime against humanity, little has been done until now to effectively include gender-based violence in the Tribunal’s work. The methodology and investigative procedures used heretofore by the Tribunal have not been conducive to collecting rape testimonies in the Rwandan context, and the indictments of the Tribunal to date do not include any rape charges. In July 1996, the Tribunal established a Sexual Assault Committee to coordinate the investigation of gender-based violence. At this writing, the committee has just begun to operate, with the aim of addressing strategic, legal and methodological questions confronting the investigations. We are hopeful that this initiative will lead to the implementation of more appropriate and effective procedures for gathering evidence of such crimes. If the Tribunal does not take immediate steps to address these problems and conduct effective investigations to collect the testimonies of rape victims, by the time cases are brought before the Tribunal judges it will be too late.

Although the international community shamefully stood by during the height of the genocide, foreign aid began to flow after the new government took power. The aid has focused mainly on the justice system and support for refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs). Since July 1994, the international community has spent approximately U.S. $2.5 billion on the Rwandan refugee camps in Zaire and Tanzania, while devoting some U.S. $572 million to Rwanda itself. Within the overall aid program to Rwanda, a fairly small amount is targeted for gender-related issues, ranging from assistance for women in terms of housing, credit and income-generating activities to support for health care and trauma counseling. Despite approximately U.S. $19 million going to the Rwandan judiciary, there are currently no programs designed to enhance the capacity of Rwandan police or police inspectors to investigate gender-related crimes, including rape and sexual violence during the genocide and current abuses against women. Some assistance is being provided for reform of discriminatory aspects of the legal code, including inheritance and succession laws, although much more is needed in order to move that process forward. Programs are also targeting vulnerable groups, including widows.

In addition to the Tribunal and various humanitarian efforts, the U.N. has also established the Human Rights Field Operation in Rwanda, which has a mandate to protect and promote human rights and to investigate the human rights situation in Rwanda, including investigating violations of human rights and humanitarian law, monitoring the ongoing human rights situation, and implementing programs of technical cooperation, especially in the area of the administration of justice. The Human Rights Operation also brings deficiencies in the judicial and law enforcement systems to the attention of the government. At the moment, however, the Human Rights Operation has no thematic focus to address current human rights problems facing women.

Research for this report was conducted by Human Rights Watch/FIDH in March and April 1996. The names of all the rape survivors interviewed have been changed to protect their privacy and safety. Human Rights Watch/FIDH worked closely with Rwandan women’s organizations and other nongovernmental organizations in order to approach rape survivors through individuals whom they trusted. When interpretation was necessary, we used Rwandan women interpreters, usually genocide survivors themselves. In all interviews, we strove to provide women with the time and privacy required for them to relate their experiences. In addition to interviewing women victims/survivors of rape in six of the eleven prefectures, Human Rights Watch/FIDH met with a wide array of nongovernmental human rights and women’s rights organizations, social workers, journalists, doctors and nurses. Within the Rwandan government, we met with representatives of the Ministry of Family and the Promotion of Women, the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Health and the prosecutor’s office. We also met with representatives from a number of international humanitarian organizations as well as the United Nations Human Rights Operation, the UNAMIR peacekeeping operation and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.

The future of Rwanda is largely in the hands of its women. With a population that is 70 percent female, it will be the women who will rebuild the country. Many of these women have lived through unimaginable suffering at the hands of those who carried out the genocide. Many have lost everything they had. Despite the overwhelming odds facing them, Rwandan women have begun to organize themselves and to rebuild their shattered lives. However, their efforts are greatly limited by the inattention of the Rwandan government and the international community to the past and present problems facing women, the subsequent lack of services designed to assist women, and the traditional and institutional constraints placed on women. For these reasons, it is imperative that the international community and the Rwandan government address in a sustained and effective manner the current problems and critical needs facing the majority of the population.




The sexual violence that took place during the genocide should be fully investigated and where possible, prosecuted and punished. The Ministry of Justice should ensure that all police inspectors receive mandatory training on the issue of rape and other sexual abuse, including their status as crimes punishable by law. Specifically, we urge that police inspectors investigating genocide crimes receive training to ensure that discriminatory attitudes about female victims of sexual abuse do not prevent serious investigation of sexual abuse or undermine its effective prosecution. A greater number of female police inspectors should be hired and trained in order to collect rape testimonies in a more systematic and effective manner.

The effectiveness of the law depends on cooperation and coordination among different government ministries. An inter-ministerial task force should be created to deal with the violence inflicted on women during the genocide and related current problems facing women, with the aim of improving the social, medical and legal responses to women’s needs in the aftermath of genocide. This body should meet on a regular basis in order to improve and coordinate the government’s delivery of services to women. It should include, at a minimum, representatives from the Ministries of Women and the Family, Justice, Health and Rehabilitation as well as from the nongovernmental women’s organizations.

While Human Rights Watch and FIDH are encouraged by the Rwandan government’s efforts to revise the discriminatory aspects of Rwandan law, we urge the government to enact the revisions expeditiously. In the interim, the government must take immediate steps to ensure that women are not arbitrarily driven off their property. Moreover, the government must ensure that once the laws are revised, programs are put into place to implement the new laws and to remedy the effects of discrimination.

The Ministry of Health should make every effort to address health issues for women resulting from the genocide. Appropriate medical care, including basic gynecological treatment, should be provided to women and girls.

The government should ensure that international relief and aid projects that assist women are coordinated and implemented throughout the country to ensure that such services are equally available to women in each prefecture.

The International Tribunal must fully and fairly investigate and prosecute sexual violence. Rape, sexual slavery and sexual mutilation should be recognized and prosecuted, where appropriate, as crimes against humanity, genocide crimes, or war crimes.

The International Tribunal must step up its efforts to integrate a gender perspective into its investigations. Previous investigative methodology and procedures, which have failed to elicit rape testimonies, must be amended. In particular, the Tribunal must ensure that the issue of violence against women is treated with the same gravity as other crimes against humanity within its jurisdiction. Investigations of rape and other forms of sexual assault should be conducted by teams that include women investigators and interpreters (preferably women) skilled in interviewing women survivors of gender-based violence in the larger context of the atrocities which occurred. Rape survivors should be given the requisite privacy and time to relate the crimes committed against them to Tribunal investigators. The investigators should also explain to interviewees the basic procedures of the investigation.

Existing indictments should be amended, where appropriate, to ensure that rape, sexual slavery and sexual mutilation charges are brought. If need be, further investigation should be conducted by the Tribunal investigators to collect information on sexual violence previously overlooked.

The Witness Protection Unit must be strengthened and expanded. Protection programs should be designed to protect the victim and witnesses against potential reprisals and be capable of responding to various protection needs. Support services must also be provided to victims and witnesses, including legal counseling to prepare them for giving testimony; trauma counseling, especially for those who suffered sexual abuse; medical attention; transport for family or other victims to accompany victims or witnesses to Arusha; and relocation of victims, witnesses, and their families, if they so desire. The prosecutor’s office must also have discretionary funds to provide for emergency protection, including relocation. Given the difficulties in protecting people in such a small and interconnected country, the victims and witnesses should be invited to suggest measures that they believe would increase their security. The Witness Protection Unit should monitor the safety of victims and witnesses on a regular basis. For those victims and witnesses who are outside of Rwanda, the Tribunal must coordinate with the relevant national government to ensure the individual’s protection.

The United Nations Human Rights Field Operation in Rwanda should ensure that its monitoring of human rights abuses includes reporting on current incidents of rape and sexual assault against women involving state agents and that such offenses are appropriately denounced. Human Rights Operation Field Officers should receive training to ensure that discriminatory attitudes about female rape victims do not prevent serious investigation of rape or sexual abuse. Reports of sexual violence should be collected in a more systematic manner, keeping in mind the need for privacy and sensitivity in order to obtain testimony from rape victims.

The Human Rights Field Operation in Rwanda should apply its monitoring and advisory role with regard to the Rwandan judicial system to ensuring the well-being of women (and their children) who require assistance in order to enjoy the equal protection of the law, especially in the area of inheritance and property rights. Although the Rwandan government has initiated a legal reform project to review such laws, the Human Rights Field Operation should call on the government to take interim steps to address the pressing problems facing women who are driven off their property and to monitor the progress of the legal reform.
TO INTERNATIONAL DONORS (the United Nations, the United States, the European Union, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, and others), AND HUMANITARIAN ORGANIZATIONS

International donors and humanitarian organizations should ensure that their programs in Rwanda address women’s needs, especially in the areas of criminal justice, health care, housing, credit, education, vocational training, and trauma counseling. To the degree possible, programs for rape survivors should be integrated into broader programs to ensure that rape survivors are not further stigmatized.

International donors should provide support for training judicial and law enforcement personnel particularly investigators of genocide crimes on gender-based crimes against women. Programs should also be devised that would enhance the recruitment of women investigators.

Financial and logistical support must be assured for the International Tribunal and for the United Nations Human Rights Field Operation. Targeted funding should be provided to ensure that the International Tribunal and the Human Rights Field Operation improve their investigation of gender-based abuses. In particular, funding should be provided to the International Tribunal for experienced female investigators trained in working with victims of gender-based crimes.





To the Rwandan Government
To the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda
To the United Nations Human Rights Field Operation in Rwanda
To International Donors and Humanitarian Organizations

The Genocide
Genocide Propaganda Against Tutsi Women
The Status of Women in Rwandan Society



Sexual Violence as a War Crime
Sexual Violence as a Crime Against Humanity
Sexual Violence as an Act of Genocide
Rape as a Crime under Rwandan Law

Sexual Violence Against Tutsi Women
Rape by the Militia
Rape by the Military
Collective Sexual Slavery
Individual Sexual Slavery: Forced “Marriage”
Rape and Mutilation
Rape of Hutu Women

Stigma, Isolation and Ostracization
Children from Rape
Discriminatory Treatment Under the Law
Property and Inheritance Rights

Lack of National Judicial Redress
The International Criminal Tribunal
Victim and Witness Protection
The United Nations Human Rights Operation
The International Response
The United Nations
The United States
The European Union
The Netherlands

Human Rights Watch      September 1996      ISBN 1-56432-208-4

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