This case note is a part of our series of case notes that document the occurrence of sexual violence in violent conflict. The case note contains explicit mentions of different forms of sexual assault. Reader discretion is advised.
Background of the conflict
Rwanda’s population largely comprised two groups – the Hutus and the Tutsis. Before Rwandan independence in 1962, it was possible for members of one group to become part of the other, which meant that social mobility was possible. The Hutus were the majority, and the Tutsis, the minority (Mamdani 2002). During colonial rule, the Hutu political movement gained momentum in favour of independence and democratization owing to their being in the majority. The Hutu Peasant Revolution of 1962 culminated in the independence of Rwanda (Yale n.d.).
After independence, there were many instances of ethnic conflict and violence. Typically, Tutsi refugees outside Rwanda planned and organized revenge. They began staging attacks against the Hutu government. In 1988, the Rwandan Patriotic Fund, or the RPF, was founded in Uganda as a political movement aiming to protect the Tutsi interests, particularly those of the refugees and those in exile (Yale n.d.). The Hutu government in Rwanda named all the Tutsis within Rwanda as accomplices of the RPF, and even called the Hutu members of their opposition parties as traitors. The media played a huge role in spreading rumours and propaganda against the Tutsis.
On April 6, 1994, the Presidents of Burundi and Rwanda died in a plane crash, caused by a rocket attack and this sparked off a series of massacres. The terms of the Arusha Accords had not yet been implemented. What followed was the Rwandan Genocide (UN 2014). On April 7, the local radio attributed the plane crash to the RPF and incited the Hutus to eliminate the “Tutsi Cockroaches”. A faction of the Rwandan government’s soldiers murdered the Rwandan Prime Minister and 10 Belgian UN Peacekeepers who were assigned to protect her. Other Hutu Opposition Leaders were assassinated as well. There was a lot of propaganda against the Tutsis.
The Hutu had a strong hold over the media which promptly spread propaganda against the Tutsis, and kept alive the barrage of hatred. Over 100 days from April 6 until July 16, about 800,000 to a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed (Mamdani 2002). Horrific massacres of the Tutsis were carried out by the Hutu Militia known as the “Interahamwe”. The massacres officially ended on July 17, 1994.
Prevalence of Sexual Violence
The UN Special Rapporteur on Rwanda, Rene Degni-Segui, wrote in a report in 1996 that “Rape was the rule, and its absence the exception” (Human Rights Watch 1996) Several incidents of rape went undocumented, and several took years to come to light – given that women were either killed and never lived to recount the truth, or were forced into silence because of stigmatization and injuries. Thus, Degni-Segui’s report made an estimate that anywhere between 250,000 and 500,000 women and girls were raped during the genocide. According to Catrien Bijleveld, Aafke Morssinkhof, and Alette Smeulers, who drew from testimonies of women who said they were raped and the number of pregnancies, noted that as many as 354,440 women, survivors and those who were killed or died, were been raped (Bijleveld et al. 2009).
Strategic use of Sexual Violence
Rape and sexual violence was strategically used as a means of carrying out ethnic erasure and as part of genocide campaigns. It was used as a means of dehumanizing Tutsi women and Hutu women who were associated with Tutsi men, effectively stripping them of their dignity and ethnic identity. Recognizing the social stigma attached to women who face sexual violence and rape, the strategy was carefully deployed to breakdown social order. In several instances, forced pregnancies were part of the campaign to carry out ethnic erasure – especially since the ideas of “purity of bloodlines” and “ethnic purity” were valuable in society. Another means by which ethnic erasure was perpetrated was the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV. It was also used as a means to terrorize and intimidate them. The campaign of rape was also used to spread fear and isolate whole communities.
In order to bring justice to the victims and survivors of the genocide, and to bring the perpetrators to book, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) was established in 1994. In 1998, the ICTR tried Jean-Paul Akayesu, a Rwandan mayor who did not prevent the rape and murder of his citizens, and even orchestrated particular murders, and made the first ever mention of rape as a crime against humanity. The court defined rape as “rape as a physical invasion of a sexual nature committed under circumstances that are coercive.” The ICTR found that rape and sexualized violence “constitute genocide in the same way as any other act as long as they were committed with the specific intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a particular group, targeted as such. Indeed, rape and sexual violence certainly constitute infliction of serious bodily and mental harm on the victims and are even, according to the Chamber, one of the worst ways of inflict [sic] harm on the victim as he or she suffers both bodily and mental harm.” Further, the ICTR found that sexual violence was used as part of a systematic campaign of genocide (Eboe-Osuji 2012).
Eboe-Osuji, Chile. 2012. International Law and Sexual Violence in Armed Conflicts. Martinus Nijhoff.
Bijleveld, Catrien & Morssinkhof, Aafke & Smeulers, Alette. 2009. Counting the Countless: Rape Victimization During the Rwandan Genocide. International Criminal Justice Review. 19. 208-224. 10.1177/1057567709335391.
Human Rights Watch. 1996. Rwanda. https://www.hrw.org/reports/1996/Rwanda.htm
Mamdani, Mahmood. 2002. When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism, and the Genocide in Rwanda.
United Nations. 2014. Outreach programme on the Rwanda Genocide and the UN. https://www.un.org/en/preventgenocide/rwanda/assets/pdf/Backgrounder%20Sexual%20Violence%202014.pdf
Yale, The Rwandan Genocide Project. http://www.yale.edu/gsp/rwanda/