WMC Women Under Siege

Judgment call: Survivors of rape in Rwanda find themselves at odds with courts

Everyone wants justice. Don’t we?

It seems easy—a crime is committed so we bring a lawsuit. Witnesses testify and justice is either served or punted over some kind of event horizon, never to be seen clearly again.

But sexualized violence has a way of tingeing everything with a sense of grime. Every revelation comes forth in nuanced grays, met with refutations that coat a survivor’s experience like dust on top of dirt. With a situation as swathed in horror as Rwanda’s genocide, it would be impossible to guess at what it has felt like for the survivors who have chosen to come forward publicly. Thanks to the work of two scholars, however, we now are able to better understand the experience of being a Rwandan survivor who chooses to confront her genocidal rapist in court.

Anne-Marie de Brower, an associate professor in international criminal law at the Department of Criminal Law of Tilburg University in the Netherlands, and Sandra Ka Hon Chu, a senior policy analyst at the Toronto-based Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, have been writing a blog series following up on reporting they did for a book they published in 2009. The Men Who Killed Me: Rwandan Survivors of Sexual Violence contains testimonies of survivors of sexualized violence, while the follow-up blog entries on IntLawGrrls are revisiting 17 survivors to see how their participation in what is known as “gacaca” court proceedings helped or hurt them.  

Nearly 2 million cases have been tried by Rwanda's gacaca courts, which are held in the open air, as seen here.

The gacaca courts were set up in 2001 in Rwanda as a means of expediting the massive number of cases brought after the genocide. Based on a form of traditional, collaborative justice, the courts hear cases outdoors—on the grass they are named for—without lawyers, and with community elders doling out justice. Much has been written and said about whether these courts are legitimate or useful in bringing reconciliation, but this blog series has broken down for us what the survivors are actually saying is their experience. And it is varied.  

An estimated 250,000 to 500,000 women were raped in Rwanda’s genocide, in which 800,000 people were murdered in 100 days. “Rape was the rule, and its absence the exception,” U.N. Special Rapporteur on Rwanda Rene Degni-Segui wrote in a 1996 report. Not only was rape the rule, but it was unusually cruel and nightmarish in Rwanda, with sexually mutilated bodies put on public display as a means of making clear that Tutsi women’s features and breasts and vaginas had been obliterated along with their personhood.

Confronting the tremendous history of sexualized violence in Rwanda is remarkable on so many levels, but the personal pain uncovered can only be told in each survivor’s words. There are some themes here though: “Overall, all survivors felt that recounting and reliving what had happened to them or hearing what had happened to their loved ones in gacaca was very traumatizing,” write the blog authors. But, they add: “In spite of how difficult it was to participate and testify in gacaca, many also felt that doing so had unburdened their hearts, healed and empowered them.”

“Many” felt unburdened, and others felt other ways. Each woman’s experience is her own; each is intertwined with the horror she experienced mixed with how her family received her after her rape, and how the courts have treated her, as well as how the community has embraced or rejected her.

There have been bizarre and terrible challenges in the gacaca proceedings heaped on top of the difficulty of testifying. For instance, one woman “noted that people from the community were able to listen and make disparaging remarks to her from the courtroom windows, which the entire panel of Hutu judges did nothing to address.”

I urge you to read this full post to better understand how forgiveness, security, and fairness have been perceived by the survivors.  

Back to the pursuit of justice as an automatically “good” act. Too often women raped in conflict have been pressured to testify in the name of some greater attempt at “justice” only to find themselves shunned by their families or communities, as they were in Bangladesh after speaking out about rape in that country’s 1971 war. Findings like those in the IntLawGrrls blog series must be read and heeded: many hearts unburdened, many survivors traumatized. Who are we to say when and in what form justice must be served when a woman has been brutalized? Only she can say.

More articles by Category: International, Violence against women
More articles by Tag: Africa, Law, Genocide, Sexualized violence



Lauren Wolfe
Journalist, former director, WMC Women Under Siege
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