Women in the time of Genocide

Leigh Barrett
Jul 20 · 15 min read
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Magnified, sanctified be thy holy name
Vilified, crucified in the human frame
A million candles burning for a help that never came
You want it darker, we kill the flame

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In typically somber tone, Leonard Cohen’s voice introduces a sterling effort to unpack the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide in the TV series, Black Earth Rising. Flashbacks told in William Kentridge-style monochromatic sequences attempt to tie-in the lead character’s broken memories to history.

The Rwandan genocide is not a simple — nor easy — story to tell, even in documentary-style, but Hugo Blick’s enthusiasm to tell every story he can imagine in one short season distracts from the important story he could have chosen. The lead character, a complicated woman, Kate Black, unable to remember the events of her childhood or her rescue, resists any effort to question her past as a young girl, yet revels in her anger of some unknown trauma that hides behind the lies told to her.

Under the hand of a more skilled writer, Kate’s lonely confusion would have been the thread that ties the subsequent events together, culminating in a revelation of who she really is — and providing a sense of understanding of her lifelong confusion.

The conflict she embodies represents a broader story that needs to be told.

The role of women in the 100 days that mark one of the most violent episodes in world history started generations before the violence. What has happened since is also worthy of note. With around half the Rwandan population identifying as Catholics, the broader impact of the Church’s policies towards women matches easily with Rwandan tribal and traditional roles of women.

The Church clashed with government policies to expand contraceptive access as recently as 2017, when the government pledged to increase family planning to 82% of the population.

Archbishop Kambanda of Kigali claims “natural family planning” builds respect in a marriage and contraception may “dilute those values… using the other as somebody for pleasure and that paves the way for violence.”

The hen does not crow with the cocks.

In a home where a woman speaks, there is discord.

A woman’s wealth is a man.

In traditional Rwandan society, the woman’s responsibilities are relegated to raising and educating children, cleaning the home, welcoming visitors, and advising their husbands. In traditional huts, the women’s entrance went directly into the kitchen. Women are a symbol of fertility and weakness while men are a symbol of strength and protection. Gender-based division of labor is instilled from a very young age: boys are initiated in combat techniques while girls cook and clean, learning submission and resignation to their lot in life. While rural women are often multiple times physically stronger than men, due to the heavy work of carrying water and firewood, they were not allowed to own any resources. It is estimated than 1 in 3 girls and women are victims of some level of sexual violence — and they are barred from discussing it. Girls become obsessed with living according to the behavior expected of them and are forced to develop a total dependence on the husband. Any deviance from that behavior brings punishment, abuse, and ostracization.

Such a norm creates a particular level of confusion when examining the role of women in the genocide.

‘No women were involved in the killings … They were mad people; no women were involved. All women were in their homes.’ Female genocide suspect, Miyove prison.

The idea that women stayed home, hid and cried, supports the traditional norms of women being voiceless, powerless, and beyond guilt. The argument becomes whether women participated, when the actual point is what role those “traditional norms” played where women were involved. When the women were pressured by their menfolk to participate, centuries of submission dictated they do as they were told. The degree of that participation varies.

‘Some women played an active role. For example, they may have killed people or been members of the CDR [an off-shoot of President Habyarimana’s party, the MRND] … Others were beside their husbands, for instance, when their husbands gave financial support to the militias. But the majority played a passive role, in refusing to hide their neighbours, and in particular, in showing the hiding places of Tutsis.’ [1]

The ability of the wife to advise her husband depends on her own personal strength and the role her husband allows her to play in their relationship. In the latter days of the genocide, with so many men dead or engaged in places other than their homes, more women were forced to make a decision about who they were, as individuals and as potential combatants.

One detainee, who accepted some responsibility for her Tutsi neighbour’s deaths as she ‘had not thought to warn them’ about her husband’s plans to kill them, said ‘when I told him he had done a bad thing, he looked at me with eyes like an animal and told me it was not proper to speak to him like that.’[2]

Another woman stated: ‘I was hiding a Tutsi woman in our house. He [my husband] was always arguing with me, telling me not to feed her … Because I was hiding her, I couldn’t argue with him about what he was doing during the day.’[3]

Women were largely not charged with complicity under Rwandan law: unless they were actually holding the pangas, they could not be guilty of any crime.

Women’s participation most often fell into indirect complicity, like pointing out where Tutsis were hiding, but some women went further. Two Catholic nuns, Sisters Gertrude and Kisito, actively chose to collaborate because of their hatred of Tutsis. The sisters sought asylum in Belgium before being arrested. In 2001, they were convicted by the Belgian Court of Assizes of intentional homicide and received sentences of 15 and 12-years respectively. While Sister Gertrude (Consolata Mukangango) handed over refugees to the military, describing them as “dirt”, Sister Kisito (Julienne Mukabutera, nicknamed “the animal” by survivors) provided jerry cans of petrol to the Interahamwe which was used to burn around 500 people alive. She also engaged in stealing possessions from corpses to distribute to troops.

The higher sentence for Sister Gertrude resulted from a letter she had written to the Bourgmestre (the village mayor) requesting that he come and “clear” the convent of people who insisted on staying there. The Bourgmestre complied and as many as 7,000 refugees were killed. Sister Kisito was able to check the names of the dead from a list at her disposal. Damning evidence given by the Sovu militia leader, Emmanuel Rekeraho, sealed the women’s fate. ‘’Those two nuns collaborated with us in everything we did. They got the Tutsi out of their hiding places and handed them over to us. They shared our hatred for the Tutsi.’’[4] After serving half her sentence, Sister Kisito was released in 2007.

Sister Gertrude’s response seems to depend on the traditional stereotype of Rwandan women as that of an unwilling victim, rather than perpetrator: ‘’I never wanted anybody to die — I suffered with the people.’’

The role of the church, international governments, most notably the United States, Britain and France, who played significant roles in either actively supporting the mostly Hutu attack on their, again mostly but not exclusively, Tutsi neighbors, or failing to act when they had clear knowledge of what was taking place, is worth a series of its own.

The church has relocated members directly involved in the brutality to Europe to live lives of comfort and obscurity, with no accountability for their actions. The UN has acted in some cases: including jailing one priest for ordering bulldozers to raze a church where 2,000 people were seeking sanctuary. All were killed. The priest received a 15 year sentence.

In 2016, the Catholic Church of Rwanda released a statement, apologizing for its role in the genocide, acknowledging that church members actively planned, aided and carried out acts of genocide. The Pope followed a year later with a pleas for forgiveness for “the sins and failings of the Church and its members”. While the Rwandan government welcomed the apology, the lack of real responsibility and restitution by the church makes the words somewhat meaningless.

Women in positions of power stand out as masterminding genocidal crimes, probably because we usually expect those crimes to be committed by men. Former Minister of Family Affairs and Women’s development, Pauline Nyiramasuhuko, is probably the most ironic figure in the events of 1994. Most of the women of high societal positions are considered the “intellectuals” playing a secondary role, rather than “ordinary” (a distinction created in the trials following the genocide).

In Nyiramasuhuko’s case, she was a woman of high government position, whose job was to protect women, but chose instead to unleash mobs to rape, torture, and murder — including her own son. Mother and 24-year old son were regularly seen driving through the streets of Butare, accompanied by militia whom the Minister would order remove girls from the streets, never to be seen after they were raped. Nyiramasuhuko and her son received the harshest sentence the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) could exact.

‘If I wasn’t a woman, maybe I would have helped this man. Because I am a woman, I was afraid and I shouted out.’ Female genocide suspect, Gitarama prison.[5]

In some cases, women bribed Interahamwe to turn a blind eye to Tutsis they were protecting or otherwise stood up to the threats on their lives. As the genocide wore on, many women were left without their men and the old traditional norms were rapidly overturned as women, many for the first time, had the power to make their own decisions and to choose their own course of action.

Ironically, prior to Belgian colonization, Hutus, Tutsis and Twa were castes who not only shared language and customs, often inter-married and were unfazed by perceived tribal differences. The Belgian colonizers, with the support of the Catholic Church, divided the groups, favoring the Tutsis against the others. Tutsis were perceived to be part of the RPF. Tutsis were seen as wealthy and Hutus were jealous of that wealth. The first anti-Tutsi massacres took place in 1962, after Rwanda’s independence, and in response, the Belgians switched their support to Hutus. But the damage was done, norms were established, and the forment of hatred of one group towards another had begun.

This intermingling of the Tutsis and Hutu created an additional layer of problems during the genocide. One Hutu woman, overwhelmed with the knowledge that her four children, who were identified as Tutsi, their father’s ethnicity, would at some point face the Interahamwe’s machetes, sought protection amongst her Hutu relatives. After being constantly refused, she sought a “more kindly” method: poison. She survived but all four children died. With a clearly broken heart, she stated: ‘I have confessed and I have even asked forgiveness from God. I know I am a sinner but I also loved my children. I did not want to kill them … I cannot sleep at night.’[6]

This “Sophie’s Choice” existed on many occasions, where Tutsis were handed over to be killed so others could be saved.

You can add up the parts
You won’t have the sum

You can strike up the march
There is no drum
Every heart, every heart
To love will come

But like a refugee
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in
(Leonard Cohen: Anthem)

Following the genocide, equality came to Rwanda. After 1994, women became politically active, almost depleting the number of women who played the role of community activists in society — a necessary balance to women being swallowed up in institutional systems.

In 1999, women were officially allowed to inherit property, open a bank account, and girls were allowed to go to school.

But, while laws can change, mindsets are much harder to adjust to a new way of looking at women. When a young man stands up and sweeps the home, he is seen as worth a beating by his father and neighbors will say he’s been “poisoned”. If a young girl decides to follow her passion and follow her father into the military or herd cows, chop wood, or any other “male” task, she is seen as an outsider and may be ostracized. But those norms are changing with a new generation of young people, determined to do things differently and create a new country with a focus on gender equality.

One of the things Abdul Khalim learned at school is that gender equality and violence are deeply connected. That’s why he decided to become the boss of the house. He helps his sister make dinner, and every time his parents have a fight he finds the courage to intervene. “My mother understood what I’m trying to do and she is happy,” Abdul Khalim says. “She once told me if I keep on doing it, maybe one day even my father will change his mind.”[7]

Rwanda has been shocked into change like no other country. Directing a massive amount of attention to gender equality and empowerment, education, nutrition, sanitation, means rapid improvements have been made to the lives of the most marginalized.

However, those old time norms have also meant that punishments for genocidaires have been unequal and open to criticism. Recognition that the ICTR could never handle all the cases meant an alternative system was required. Gacacas was a mechanism created to deal with many of the women who had played a role in the events. They are traditional courts where women have been allowed to participate, whether in the role of judge, witness, victim or representatives. The less formal court can make a woman feel more comfortable in testifying about the horrors perpetrated upon her. However, in many cases, women are unable to identify their attacker/s because they didn’t know those who raped them or the perpetrators have either died or cannot be found. Reluctance to testify is also a result of neighbor’s threats and intimidation, sometimes resulting in the victim being forced to relocate, and women are often bribed into dropping their testimony.

On the eve of one man’s trial in 2008, the survivor called the police and reported that he had turned up outside her house, with another man. When he was arrested, he told the police that he had raped her and was coming to her house to ask forgiveness and give her 200,000 Rwandan francs (about US$330). When searched, the police discovered he had no money on him. The man did not confess during his trial but was convicted and sentenced to life. Other cases have not been taken to law courts because they are simply too hard to prove.

Women have also benefitted from “chivalry theory” — where men cannot perceive women as anything other than victims, or feel protective towards those who engaged in crimes, excusing them as being under a man’s influence.

‘It is difficult to accept in Rwanda that women are killers. In our tradition, women are supposed to be humble people, to welcome visitors at home and show a good image. So, women would be ashamed to be found guilty. It is like a taboo, to think that women killed. Some people say it is not good to have women in prison and that is why some women are still outside prison.[8]

‘If I wasn’t a woman, maybe I would have helped this man. Because I am a woman, I was afraid and I shouted out.’ Female genocide suspect, Gitarama prison.[9]

As of 1 January, 2019, Rwanda has the most women in Parliament than any other country. In the Lower House, 61.3% of representatives are women; in the Upper House or Senate, 38.5% are women. In comparison, the US sits at position 28. Ironically, feminism is seen as something of a dirty word in Rwanda. “You’re trying to be American” is a common refrain leveled at any girl who reaches out of the gender rule box. Too liberated, too selfish, too un-womanly.

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Source: https://data.ipu.org/women-ranking/?month=9&year=2019

However, perhaps the distances between the two countries isn’t quite as vast as assumed. When one looks a little closer at America’s “Rosie Riveter” moment, when women took up positions previously occupied by men in factories, that was short-lived. Women were sent back to the kitchen when men returned from the war. It took another 20 years for women to start realizing the constraints of life could be burned at the same time as their bra. In Rwanda’s case, it was President Paul Kagame who realized the country was so broken that it needed women to help rebuild it if it had any chance of survival.

This doesn’t mean he carried the general population with him. One female politician told author Justine Uvuza that she was still required, by her husband, to lay out his clothes for him (socks placed on top of his shoes, naturally) each morning. The power may have existed in her hands in the parliamentary suites but, at home, she was expected to play the traditional, submissive role. Being able to speak out and advocate for stronger penalties for sexual violence and women’s rights, did not follow through to speaking about the abuse a woman in a position of authority had to deal with in the privacy of her own home.

It will take another generation, more connected to the world, to engage the nation in a discussion about equality — as long as the foreign, Westerner word “feminism” is not used. However, it IS being used — quietly, privately, covertly, and, as women everywhere know only too well, those conversations can do more to change mindsets than being overtly “loud” in public.

The journey to equality always involves a push-me-pull-you journey, often decades long and largely because most humans cannot simply change their views but require time to discard old beliefs taught from childhood. It’s hard to tell if Kagame’s support of gender equality, recent authoritarian actions against women who would run against him politically, and the generations of the genocide, will catch up with the changes but there is a young generation, emboldened by technology that reaches around the world and a newfound confidence to speak up, that bodes well for a country devoted to healing the wounds of the past.

The more important task at hand is this: at what point does humanity understand the impact of trauma on successive generations and how the revolving door of violence against our own impedes the progress of all?

Most people pay scant attention to headlines, especially when the topic is Africa, and rarely know what happens on the continent. The aftermath of a genocide, however, lingers for generations. Children of rape victims struggle to deal with the knowledge that their father was a genocidaire and the guilt that is carried through generational trauma, whether the Holocaust or Rwandan genocide, is only now being studied.

These studies will likely only make a real difference in humanity when women are seen as the valuable partners they are, and traditional roles are finally discarded.

The complicated role of women, power, and democracy shows up in the final episode of Black Earth Rising when Kate uncovers the secret of her identity, wrapped as it is in political corruption, international guilt, and a massive conspiracy with profits at the centre.

The moving moment where, instead of following orders, the resilient villagers join Kate in digging up a mass grave, is symbolic of the people who occupy the bottom rung of the power ladder, finally finding the strength to be the moral purveyors of their history and their future.

Women are best situated to lead that future, and Rwanda’s women may just be showing us an example in how to do that.

Recommended reading:
Rwandan Women Rising by Swanee Hunt, Duke University Press | Durham and London | 2017
From the Introduction:
“There is a strong theme of humility and generosity in the overall style of Rwandan women. At the grass roots, they’ve organized around common problems of poverty, shelter, health, and equality. Then, rather than driven by political ambition, they are drawn into the public sphere to protect their families and construct a new society.

“Restoring their country means caring for one another as well, with trailblazing pragmatism as consensus builders and collaborators. They forgive when reconciliation defies imagination. They mentor when their own needs cry out for attention. They break a world record when seasoned legislators give up quota- ensured seats to run in the general contest, allowing a new wave to enter politics.”

[1], [2], [3] (Women’s participation in the Rwandan genocide: mothers or monsters? Nicole Hogg Volume 92 Number 877 March 2010 — International Review of the Red Cross)
[4] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2001/apr/17/warcrimes
[5] [6] Women’s participation in the Rwandan genocide: mothers or monsters? Nicole Hogg Volume 92 Number 877 March 2010 — International Review of the Red Cross)
[7] Rwanda’s Future Is Female by Caterina Clerici & Eléonore Hamelin, Feb 1, 2019
[8] [9] Women’s participation in the Rwandan genocide: mothers or monsters? Nicole Hogg Volume 92 Number 877 March 2010 — International Review of the Red Cross)

Leigh Barrett is a freelance writer and editor, living in Cape Town.
Contact for rates at email: perspective.editorial@gmail.com


Contemporary international issues, literature, philosophy…

Leigh Barrett

Written by

Editor, writer, audio editor, community changemaker, thought leader, living on the world’s oldest mountain.



Contemporary international issues, literature, philosophy, psychology, art, science, and history. A combined initiative of MIPJ: Media, Information, International Relations, and Humanitarian Affairs (mipj.org) and Humanitas Media Publishing (humanitasmedia.com).

Leigh Barrett

Written by

Editor, writer, audio editor, community changemaker, thought leader, living on the world’s oldest mountain.



Contemporary international issues, literature, philosophy, psychology, art, science, and history. A combined initiative of MIPJ: Media, Information, International Relations, and Humanitarian Affairs (mipj.org) and Humanitas Media Publishing (humanitasmedia.com).

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