Raise your hand if you think you know all about the genocide in Rwanda. It left, by many estimates, one million people dead and scores raped and maimed. Now ask yourself if you know what happened to women in the Rwandan conflict. Most people have heard of the genocide but few know the role the degradation of women played in that conflict, and how central the systematic abuse of women was to the Hutu mission to cleanse Rwanda of its Tutsi minority.
The Hutu and the Tutsi were, at their origin, culturally indistinguishable tribes until German colonizers came to Rwanda in the early 1900’s. In 1916 Belgium seized Rwanda (and Burundi) from Germany and solidified its rule by 1918. The Belgian rule over Rwanda lasted from 1818 to 1962 during which they established an apartheid-like system using the strategy of divide and rule. To accomplish that end they began to distinguish the Rwandan population by their occupational and physical characteristics. The Hutu, comprising the majority of the population, were peasants and farmers with physical characteristics resembling the Ugandan or Tanzanian populations. The Tutsi minority were land-owners and cattle-herders with longer legs and necks more akin to the European self image. Together with their greater asset value the Tutsi were anointed as the ruling class, and hence the seeds of resentment were sewn. Belgium soon came to view the power of the Tutsi as threat to their colonial rule and began to hand some key posts and chiefdoms to Hutu. The division of power led to the first Rwandan bloody conflict in 1961 when the UN intervened to oversee elections. Rwanda gained its independence, but the divide had been cemented and the Hutu remained resentful of the power that the Tutsi had been handed by the Belgians.
The Hutu Ten Commandments clearly demonstrate the resentment of the Hutu against the Tutsi. The central theme of those commandments hinges on regaining some measure of pride and stolen legitimacy from the Tutsi. Central to that goal is the humiliation of their women. The first three of the commandments focus on women and the role of the Hutu versus Tutsi woman:
1. Every Hutu should know that a Tutsi woman, whoever 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.
These “commandments” laid the groundwork for the humiliation of women to come during the genocide between April and July 1994 when millions of people were massacred and as many as 500,000 women were raped and torchered in the name of Hutu supremacy.
“Gender hate propaganda was perhaps the most virulent component of the propaganda campaign. Propagandists portrayed Tutsi women as enemies of the state, used by Tutsi men to “infiltrate Hutu ranks.” Propagandists claimed Tutsi women were more beautiful and desirable, but “inaccessible to Hutu men whom they allegedly looked down upon and were ‘too good for.”‘ This characterization led to what one Tutsi woman explained as an indescribable hate. As such, “[r]ape served to shatter these images by humiliating, degrading, and ultimately destroying the Tutsi woman.”
Propagandists presented Tutsi women as sexual objects. Extremist literature contained cartoons that portrayed Tutsi women in sexual positions with various politicians. The literature also depicted Tutsi women as prostitutes who used their sexual charms to seduce the Western forces stationed in Rwanda.
…These images and characterizations clearly affected the psyche of the participants in the genocide. Rape survivors have recounted statements of their violators such as:
‘We want to see how sweet Tutsi women are’;
‘You Tutsi women think that you are too good for us’;
‘We want to see if a Tutsi woman is like a Hutu woman’;
‘If there were peace you would never accept me’.
These statements reveal that propagandists’ efforts success-fully demonized Tutsi women, thus increasing their vulnerability to sexual violence throughout the genocide.
Leslie L. Green, Columbia Human Rights Law review, 2002
The Hutu militia often raped then humiliated women in public squares. Many female victims recount horrific tales of repeated rape and then mutilation and humiliation to add insult to the injury. Some had their breasts or buttocks cut-off in order to be left with the physical scar of the rape. In Rwandan society, Hutu or Tutsi, a woman who’s chastity has been compromised can no longer be married, bear children, or hold a respectable place in society. So the trauma of the rape would be re-lived with added tragedy for the women who were left to live.
The campaign against women was brutal, and left no woman or girl untouched. Victims of rape from the Rwandan genocide are documented to have been as young as 2 years old, and as old as 60. The demoralization of the Tutsi population was carried out by virtue of the systematic degradation of their women.
Rape has since been codified as a crime that is particularly virulent because it is a gender based hate crime committed against women with multiple consequences both physical, and more chronically, psychological. The UN has declared rape as a crime against humanity. But it is still widely used as a tool to establish control over populations by those who wish to dominate them. Why is it that the degradation and rule of women is such an essential part of taking over a people? Is it because the identity of communities is so essentially tied into the women? Is it because women pro-create the next generation?
If women are so esteemed as to embody the virtue of the society they are a part of, then why not respect and protect them, instead of using them as the sieve of every man’s anger and frustration? Rwanda was a disaster that was witnessed by a paralyzed globe that looked-on like spectators aghast at what man could do to man. But Rwanda is not the end of genocide, and the systematic humiliation of women is to uniquely a Hutu strategy. It is still practiced the world over, while people still turn a blind-eye and walk away from what they will no doubt, in hindsight, condemn.
For perspective see: