Rwanda’s Genocide: Human Rights Abuses Against Women

During the genocide of 1994, Hutu militia groups and the Rwandan military regularly used rape and other sexual violence as weapons in their genocidal campaign against the Tutsi community. In Shattered Lives: Sexual Violence During the Rwandan Genocide and its Aftermath, released today, Human Rights Watch and the Fédération Internationale des Ligues des Droits de l’Homme (FIDH) provide detailed and disturbing testimonies from women who survived horrific attacks on their families and themselves, only to face a future complicated by laws and practices that discriminate against them and social services that cannot begin to meet their needs.

Human Rights Watch and FIDH call on the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), convening on September 26 in Arusha, to investigate and prosecute rape and other gender-related crimes. In addition, we urge the Rwandan government to ensure that women are guaranteed equal protection under domestic law and alert the international humanitarian community to the necessity for their humanitarian programs to address women’s needs, especially in the areas of health care, trauma counseling, housing, credit, and education. “The genocide in Rwanda left a population that is 70% female, and the stories told by survivors defy comprehension. What is clear is that Rwanda will only rebuild itself through these women, and the international community must do everything possible to help them deal effectively with the past in order to move productively into the future,” said Dorothy Q. Thomas, director of the Human Rights Watch Women’s Rights Project.

Although the exact number of rapes that occurred in Rwanda may never be known, testimonies in the 104-page report confirm that rape was extremely widespread and that women were individually raped, gang-raped, raped with objects such as sharpened sticks or gun barrels, held in sexual slavery or sexually mutilated. These crimes were frequently part of a pattern in which women were raped after they had witnessed the torture and killings of their relatives and the destruction and looting of their homes. Women from both the Tutsi and Hutu ethnic groups were raped, although most rape and other forms of violence were targeted against Tutsi women.

Until very recently, the ICTR largely neglected its responsibility to investigate and prosecute rape. It has to date issued no indictments for rape and other forms of sexual violence. Initial investigations were hampered by serious methodological flaws, including investigative procedures which were not conducive to eliciting rape testimonies from Rwandan women. In July 1996, the International Tribunal took the welcome step of forming a sexual assault committee to coordinate the examination of gender-based violence and has begun to investigate such abuse. However, unless the ICTR takes further steps to incorporate attention to sexual violence into its overall work, rape and other gender-based crimes could go unpunished.

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