Rape during the Rwandan Genocide

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Violence during the Rwandan Genocide of 1994 took a gender-specific form, when, over the course of 100 days, in an act of genocidal rape up to half a million women were raped, sexually mutilated or murdered. The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) handed down the first conviction for the use of rape as a weapon of war during the civil conflict, and it was the first time that mass rape during wartime was found to be an act of genocide since the intent of the mass violence against women was to destroy, in whole or in part, a particular ethnic group.[1][a]

The mass rapes were carried out by the Interahamwe militia and members of the civilian population, the Rwandan military, and the Rwandan Presidential Guard. The sexual violence was directed at the national and local levels by political and military leaders in the furtherance of their goal, the destruction of the Tutsi ethnic group.[2]

There was extensive use of propaganda through both print and radio to incite violence against women, with both mediums being used to portray Tutsi women as untrustworthy, and as acting against the Hutu majority. The conflict resulted in an estimated 2000–10,000 war babies being born as a result of forcible impregnation.

Background on gender-targeted crimes[edit]

The concept of gender-targeted crimes was formulated to encourage recognition of the fact that such crimes serve as instruments of war, and are not merely a by-product of armed conflict.[3] Gender-targeted crimes include rape, mutilation of reproductive capabilities, and other forms of sexual violence.[4] Gender-targeted crimes have been used as a tool of ethnic cleansing.[5] Rape, forced impregnation and forced abortion can all be methods used in pursuit of genocide.[6]

Anthropologists of violence have noted that attacks against unarmed civilians usually target the most human features—the face and the reproductive organs. And for women, attacks are made against them both as humans and as child-bearers.[7] Gender-targeted crimes are within militaristic or nationalist plans in times of conflict.[3]

Use of propaganda[edit]

1994 cartoon printed in Kangura and written in Kinyarwanda: "General Dallaire and his army have fallen into the trap of Tutsi Femmes fatales."

The use of propaganda played an important role in both the genocide and the gender-specific violence. The Hutu propaganda depicted Tutsi women as "a sexually seductive 'fifth column' in league with the Hutus' enemies". The exceptional brutality of the sexual violence, as well as the complicity of Hutu women in the attacks, suggests that the use of propaganda had been effective in the exploitation of gendered needs which had mobilized both females and males to participate in the genocide.[8] One of the first victims of the genocide was Agathe Uwilingiyimana, who had been the first woman to hold the post of prime minister. For the twelve months preceding the genocide, she had been portrayed in extremist political literature and propaganda as being a threat to the nation, and as promiscuous.[9]

Early in 1990, over a dozen newspapers were launched, written in either Kinyarwanda or French, and they methodically exploited ethnic tensions. In December 1990, the newspaper Kangura printed the Hutu Ten Commandments of which four dealt specifically with women.[b][11] On 29 January 1992, Kangura made accusations against Tutsi women, claiming that they had a monopoly on employment in both the private and public sectors, and that they would hire their "Tutsi sisters on the basis of their thin noses (considered a stereotypical 'Tutsi feature')". Kangura requested that all Hutu be vigilant against the Tutsi, who Kangura called Inyenzi (cockroaches), as well as those considered accomplices. In an interview with Human Rights Watch one Hutu woman stated, "According to the propaganda, the Tutsi were hiding the enemy. And their beautiful women were being used to do it. So, everybody knew what that meant".[11]

The use of cartoons in the print media usually represented Tutsi women as being sexually provocative. One printed by Kangura depicted the head of the UN peace-keeping forces in an amorous position with two Tutsi women; the caption read, "General Dallaire and his men have fallen into the trap of fatal women". Another image portrayed Tutsi women having sex with three Belgian paratroopers.[12]

Using both the printed press and the Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLMC), propagandists gave a portrayal of Tutsi women as "devious seductresses who would undermine the Hutu". Members of the military were barred from marrying Tutsi women, and Tutsi women were portrayed as arrogant, ugly and viewing Hutu men as inferior.[13]

Rape as a weapon of genocide[edit]

Refugee camp for Rwandans in Kimbumba, eastern Zaire (current Democratic Republic of the Congo), following the Rwandan genocide.

According to Amnesty International, the use of rape during times of war is not a by-product of conflicts, but is a pre-planned and deliberate military strategy, saying "The opportunistic rape and pillage of previous centuries has been replaced in modern conflict by rape used as an orchestrated combat tool."[14] Cultural anthropologists, historians and social theorists have indicated that the use of mass rape in wartime has become an integral part of modern day conflicts, such as in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Darfur, Liberia, and Colombia.[15] During the conflict Hutu extremists released hundreds of patients from hospitals, who were suffering from AIDS, and formed them into "rape squads". The intent was to infect and cause a "slow, inexorable death".[16] Obijiofor Aginam argues that while throughout history sexual violence against women is replete with such incidents of rape during times of war, more recent conflicts has seen the use of rape as a weapon of war become a "conspicuous phenomenon". He believes that the deliberate infection of women with HIV is evidenced from survivors testimony. In The Right to Survive: Sexual Violence, Women and HIV/AIDS, Françoise Nduwimana documented testimony from survivors of rape.[c] Aginam argues that these testimonies provide proof that there was a clear intent by the rapists to infect women with the HIV virus.[17] Survivors have testified that the transmission of the HIV virus was a deliberate act by talking about how the men, before they raped them, would say that they were not going to kill them directly but rather give them a slow death from AIDS. Two-thirds of a sample of 1,200 Rwandan genocide widows tested positive for HIV, and the infection rates in rural areas more than doubled after the genocide.[18] There is no data on the number of victims who died from AIDS after 1994 who had contracted the disease from having been raped during the genocide.[19]

Although Tutsi women were the main targets, moderate Hutu women were also raped during the genocide.[20] Along with the Hutu moderates, Hutu women who were married to Tutsis and Hutu women who hid Tutsis were targeted.[21] In a testimonial, Maria Louise Niyobuhungiro recalls seeing local people and Hutu men watched her get raped up to five times a day, and that when she was kept under watch by a woman, she received neither sympathy nor help and was also forced to farm between rapes.[22] Through public display, rape breaks the and social bonds of a national, cultural, or political group.[23]

Tutsi women were also targeted with the intent of destroying their reproductive capabilities. Sexual mutilation sometimes occurred after the rape and included mutilation of the vagina with machetes, knives, sharpened sticks, boiling water, and acid.[24] The genocidaires also held women as sex slaves for weeks.[25] Major Brent Beardsley, assistant to Dallaire, gave testimony at the ICTR. When asked about the sexual violence he had witnessed, he stated that the killing blows tended to be aimed at the reproductive organs, and that the victims had been deliberately slashed on the breasts and vagina. Beardsley also testified to having seen the bodies of girls as young as six and seven who had been raped so brutally that their vaginas were split and swollen from what had obviously been gang rapes. He concluded by saying "Massacres kill the body. Rape kills the soul. And there was a lot of rape. It seemed that everywhere we went, from the period of 19th of April until the time we left, there was rape everywhere near these killing sites."[26]

Estimates of victims[edit]

Research into the sexual violence during the genocide in Rwanda has shown that nearly every female survivor over twelve years of age had been a victim of rape.[27]

According to U.N. Special Rapporteur, Rene Degni-Segui, "Rape was the rule, and its absence the exception". In 1996 Degni-Segui estimated that the number of women and girls raped were between 250,000 to 500,000. Degni-Segui's estimate was arrived at after he had evaluated rape cases which had been documented and the number of war babies which resulted from the genocidal rape. Degni-Segui believes that the 15,700 rape incidents reported by the Rwanda Ministry for Family and Protection of Women were most likely "under reported" given the number of years many victims would take to report the rapes, if ever they did. He also discovered that the estimates by medical personnel of one birth per 100 rapes did not include women who had been murdered after being raped. Due to this missing data, Degni-Segui arrived at his estimate of between 250,000-500,000 women and girls raped. He has said of the atrocities, "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."[28]

Catrien Bijleveld, Aafke Morssinkhof, and Alette Smeulers estimate 354,440 women raped. They researched the testimonies of women who said they had been raped during the genocide, and also the number of those who had been forcibly impregnated; this number was then added with the known amount of those who had been raped, but had been killed. They stated that "Almost all surviving Tutsi women were raped." [28]


Those who survived the genocidal rape found themselves stigmatised, and for many they also discovered they were infected with HIV. This has resulted in these women being denied their rights to property and inheritance as well as their employment chances being restricted.[29] It is estimated by the National Population Office of Rwanda that between 2000 and 5000 children were born as a result of forced impregnation. However, victims groups believe this is underestimated and the number exceeds 10,000. These children are socially stigmatized and are referred to as "les enfants mauvais souvenir" (children of bad memories), "enfants désirés" (children of hate) and "little killers".[30] The victims also suffer from survivor's guilt as well as extreme anxiety due to their assailants not being held accountable.[31] In 1995 widows of the genocide founded Association des Veuves du Genocide (AVEGA, Widows of the Genocide of April) to see to the needs of female survivors who had been widowed or raped.[32] The extent of the rapes was quickly picked up by human rights groups, with one report, Shattered Lives: Sexual Violence During the Rwandan Genocide and Its Aftermath written by Binaifer Nowrojee, becoming one of the most highly cited human rights reports in up to thirty years.[33]

War crimes trials[edit]

An ICTR building in Kigali

From the evidence presented to the ICTR it was revealed that Hutu political leaders had ordered that the mass rapes be carried out.[34]

Jean-Paul Akayesu is the first person to have been convicted for using rape as genocide.[35][36] Initially gender based violence had not been included in the indictment against Akayesu, however after pressure was brought to bear by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) an amendment was made to the indictment.[37] During the trial of Akayesu, the ICTR affirmed that sexual violence, including rape, fell under paragraph B of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, as the rapes had been carried out with the sole intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a specific group.[38] The ICTR also made the finding that the sexual violence against the Tutsi women was a systematic part of the genocide, which was carried out against all Tutsi women. To this extent the finding against Akayesu, that rape can be an act of genocide,[39] is a major step forward in international jurisprudence on prosecutions on charges of genocide.[40] On 2 September 1998, Akayesu was sentenced to life imprisonment after being found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity, which included rape.[41]

The first woman charged for genocidal rape was Pauline Nyiramasuhuko, a politician, who was the Minister for Family Welfare and the Advancement of Women during the conflict.[42] In summation, the ICTR found "beyond a reasonable doubt that: between 19 April and late June 1994 Nyiramasuhuko, Ntahobali, Interahamwe and soldiers went to the BPO to abduct hundreds of Tutsis; the Tutsi refugees were physically assaulted and raped; and the Tutsi refugees were killed in various locations throughout Ngoma commune."[16]

During the Media trial, so called as those being tried, Hassan Ngeze had been editor-in-chief of Kangura, and Ferdinand Nahimana and Jean-Bosco Barayagwiza were the founders of RTLMC. The ICTR judged that the Hutu Ten Commandments and another article titled The Appeal to the Conscience of the Hutu conveyed "contempt and hatred for the Tutsi ethnic group, and for Tutsi women in particular as enemy agents, and called on readers to take all necessary measures to stop the enemy, defined as the Tutsi population"[43]


  1. ^ "... any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
    (a) Killing members of the group;
    (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
    (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
    (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
    (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group. Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, Article 2"
  2. ^ 1. Every Hutu should know that a Tutsi woman, wherever she is, works for the interest of her Tutsi ethnic group. As a result, we shall consider a traitor any Hutu who: marries a Tutsi woman; befriends a Tutsi woman; employs a Tutsi woman as a secretary or a concubine. 2. Every Hutu should know that our Hutu daughters are more suitable and conscientious in their role as woman, wife and mother of the family. Are they not beautiful, good secretaries and more honest? 3. Hutu women, be vigilant and try to bring your husbands, brothers and sons back to reason. 7. The Rwandese Armed Forces should be exclusively Hutu. The experience of the October [1990] war has taught us a lesson. No member of the military shall marry a Tutsi.[10]
  3. ^ For 60 days, my body was used as a thoroughfare for all the hoodlums, militia men and soldiers in the district ... Those men completely destroyed me; they caused me so much pain. They raped me in front of my six children ... Three years ago, I discovered I had HIV/AIDS. There is no doubt in my mind that I was infected during these rapes.[17]


  1. ^ Chalk 2007, p. 372.
  2. ^ Nowrojee 1996, p. 1.
  3. ^ a b Buss 2009, pp. 145-163.
  4. ^ Hayden 2000, pp. 27-41.
  5. ^ Münkler 2004, p. 82.
  6. ^ Phelps 2006, p. 503.
  7. ^ Audoin-Rouzeau 2003, pp. 47.
  8. ^ Jones 2010, pp. 138-141.
  9. ^ Lynch 2010, p. 111.
  10. ^ Singular 1999, pp. 113–115.
  11. ^ a b Nowrojee 2007, p. 366.
  12. ^ Taylor 2009, p. 131.
  13. ^ Nowrojee 2007, p. 365.
  14. ^ Smith-Spark 2012.
  15. ^ Canning 2012, p. 40.
  16. ^ a b Drumbl 2012.
  17. ^ a b Aginam 2012.
  18. ^ Elbe 2002, pp. 159-177.
  19. ^ Verwimp 2006, pp. 5-22.
  20. ^ de Brouwer 2005, p. 13.
  21. ^ Nowrojee 1996, p. 2.
  22. ^ Ka Hon Ch 2010, pp. 29-34.
  23. ^ Card 1996, pp. 5-18.
  24. ^ Nowrojee 1996, p. 63.
  25. ^ Rittner 2009, p. 291-305.
  26. ^ Nowrojee 2007, p. 364.
  27. ^ Walsh 2012, p. 59.
  28. ^ a b Sai 2012.
  29. ^ De Brouwer 2010, p. 19.
  30. ^ Mukangendo 2007, p. 40.
  31. ^ Mukamana 2006, p. 141.
  32. ^ Mukamana 2006, pp. 142-143.
  33. ^ Jones 2011, p. 143.
  34. ^ Merry 2008, p. 166.
  35. ^ De Brouwer 2005, pp. 105-107.
  36. ^ Volkmann-Benkert 2009, pp. 162-163.
  37. ^ Schabas 2000, p. 164-165.
  38. ^ Schabas 2000, pp. 162-163.
  39. ^ Eboe-Osuji 2012, pp. 159-160.
  40. ^ Schabas 2000, p. 163-164.
  41. ^ Eltringham 2004, p. 28.
  42. ^ Fielding 2012, p. 25.
  43. ^ Grunfeld 2007, pp. 21-22.


Further reading[edit]