Last week, Rwanda witnessed a momentous event as over 6000 delegates assembled for the Women Deliver Conference, uniting change-makers and advocates for women’s rights worldwide.
Amidst the empowering atmosphere, the inspiring story of how women fought to establish rape as a serious offense in Rwanda serves as a powerful reminder of the ongoing struggle for justice and equality.
Three decades ago, sexual assault in Rwanda was treated as a minor offense, akin to stealing livestock or insulting a passersby. Rape culture was so prevalent in the country, that victims were often blamed for the assault and received little support.
The concept of defilement and any sexual act with an under-age child – did not even exist. I’m the aftermath of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, a group of women lawmakers and activists fought against this reality.
The gravity of rape crimes reached its pinnacle during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi when Tutsi women and girls were systematically subjected to large-scale and open sexual violence before being killed or left to die.
The media played a disturbing role in perpetuating this atrocity. Tutsi women were portrayed as mere objects of desire, seductively beautiful, and unattainable. This insidious portrayal served to normalize the act of assaulting them for the perpetrators, who came from diverse backgrounds, irrespective of wealth, social status, or education.
Tutsi women faced not only individual rapes but also the horrifying reality of gang rape. The appalling scale and brutality of these attacks added to their immense suffering.
Rape atrocities spared no location, staining churches, government offices, hospitals, and countless other sites with their horror. A 1996 UN report revealed that rape was the norm, with its absence being the exception. Subsequent reports have revealed the grim truth that nearly all surviving women were victims of genocidal rape.
After the genocide, survivors of rape embarked on a challenging journey of seeking healing, justice, and redemption. The task was daunting: almost half a million women were raped, over 20,000 children were born as a result of rape, and countless victims were systematically infected with HIV.
However, when prosecuting genocide crimes, rape was often sidelined or trivialized. But rape victims refused to remain silent, demanding that the world acknowledge the gravity of the atrocities they faced.
Women who had endured the unspeakable pain of rape found strength in sharing their stories with each other, creating a safe space for themselves. Over time, their unwavering determination and resilience gave birth to an organic movement.
Deeply moved by these horrifying stories, female parliamentarians came to realize that rape had been used as a systematic weapon to undermine the very essence of womanhood during the genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda. In response, they took it upon themselves to rectify this grave injustice and elevate the status of rape to a more serious crime within the legal framework.
This community-led lobbying resulted in a groundbreaking outcome: rape, previously categorized as a level three crime in Rwanda’s constitution, was elevated to a category one offense. This achievement had a profound impact beyond Rwanda, gaining recognition from the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR).
Advocating for the reclassification of the crime of sexual rape committed during the genocide, Pro-Femmes/Twese Hamwe, an umbrella organization of 50 civil society groups, successfully influenced the ICTR, leading to a groundbreaking conviction of Jean-Paul Akayesu, a former Rwandan mayor, found guilty of committing rape as a crime against humanity.
Akayesu’s conviction rested solely on victim testimonies, as no physical evidence directly linked him to the act of rape. Nonetheless, he was found guilty of rape as a crime against humanity. The prosecution demonstrated that he was aware of the sexual violence taking place and even facilitated it by allowing such atrocities near his commune office. His words of encouragement further fueled the commission of sexual violence, indicating official tolerance.
This landmark conviction was made possible by the courageous testimonies of five women from former Butare (now South Province) who bravely relived their traumatic experiences during the genocide each time they spoke out. Their bravery and resilience showcased that Rwandan women were more than mere survivors or victims; they became agents of significant change, empowering countless lives.
The reason for sharing this story, even decades later, is its universal relevance. While the genocide against the Tutsi is a unique case, rape and gender-based violence continue to plague women worldwide. Rwandan women’s resilience and determination continue to inspire efforts for justice, healing, and redemption for all affected by these unimaginable horrors.
Through their unwavering spirit, they have become advocates for change, pushing society to confront the darkest aspects of history, and reminding us of the urgent need to address and prevent such atrocities in every corner of the world.
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