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Opting for life
– by Stefanie Keienburg, Godeliève Masakarasi
© medica mondiale
“About 20,000 women bore the children of their rapists and are still raising them”: Women’s forum for mothers in Rwanda
What is the situation of women who were raped during the genocide?
Well, that differs a lot, depending on the extent of psychological and medical support the women got. It matters too, of course, how their families and neighbours responded. In general, the women did not speak about rape because of shame as well as fear of becoming marginalised or someone taking revenge. Like in many other African countries, rape is taboo in our society. Many people feel that a raped woman brings shame to her family and community. Many victims suffer from severe depressions. And there are physical health issues too, AIDS in particular. More than two thirds of the rape victims were infected with HIV in 1994.
Many women got pregnant and are now raising the children of their tormentors.
Yes, and the presence of the children constantly reminds them of the violence they experienced. Many feel hatred and resentment towards their offspring, but also guilt. Typically, they are the only ones who assume responsibility for these children. The husbands of those who are married often only tolerate the children if the mothers cover all expenses for food, school fees et cetera. The children are a great burden on the women, even when the women concerned have long since accepted their kids. One woman told me that her child is not allowed to join the family for meals, and is only fed what is left over.
You host forums for women with children who were born of rape.
Yes, we do, and the reason is that these women need space for their tears, their grief and their pent-up anger. Our counsellors listen to their stories. They give them an opportunity to open up and express what they have gone through. For many women, such a forum is the first time they speak about their suffering. And it is the first time they meet other women who share a similar fate. We want them to see that their plight is not their children’s fault. We also want to encourage them to tell their children the truth. Doing so is hard, but it helps the women to really opt for life, including the life of their child.
What are these women’s forums like?
The meetings go on for two days, and the women have opportunities to share their experiences in individual conversations as well as in groups with other women. There is role play, which helps to better understand their situation and solve current problems. We also discuss health issues, the rights of genocide survivors and children’s education. Many women do not even know that children have rights. Moreover, there is time for singing, dancing and praying. The women’s daily life is marked by worries and difficulties, so we need to reduce stress levels. And we teach them a simple and soothing massage method they can always apply themselves.
What encourages the women?
It has a strong healing impact to meet other women whose fate is similar and share their history with them. For years, many of the women thought they were the only one who had become a mother because of rape. The women live scattered all over the country, and many had never left their village before coming to the forum. The group setting helps them to better understand their own situation.
And what is the situation of the children?
Their age is now 15 to 17 years. They are quite aware of what is going on around them. They have felt rejection and discrimination for years, but never knew the reason. Typically the only response to their questions concerning their identities was rejection, denial or even violence. Many are severely traumatised or even suicidal. Some want to meet their fathers, but in our society, that is totally impossible for the time being.
What are the greatest challenges?
The women’s poverty and lack of education are serious problems. Many are illiterate. Moreover, there is violence and discrimination within the families. We do not have much influence on these matters, even though we do go and visit some of the women at home and talk to the members of their family. Another challenge is that our counsellors have to pay attention to their own wellbeing. It is not easy to expose oneself to other people’s suffering again and again. One has to learn to draw a line.
What does the government do to support the rape victims?
Some of the women who survived rape get money from the National Assistance Fund for Survivors (Fonds National pour l’Assistance aux Rescapés du Génocide – FARG), but their children do not. They were born after the violence, so they are not considered victims of violence, which is maddening. Many of them could afford to go to school if they got some support with the fees. We have been demanding a special fund for these children and their mothers, but so far, the government remains stubborn. Such a fund, moreover, would also have to serve women who were raped by marauding rebels after the genocide was over according to the official record.
Some genocide perpetrators have been tried and found guilty, including for rape. What is the impact of such trials?
The trials have dealt with thousands of violent crimes, and they have contributed to Rwanda’s people understanding the disaster of 1994. Thanks to the proceedings, many people were able to find the bodies of their dead and bury them. For the survivors of sexualised violence, however, something else matters more. In 1998, women’s rights activists like us managed to make sure that the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda considers rape in war a genocidal crime, so those who planned and perpetrated such violence can be prosecuted. At least in legal terms, the victims’ suffering has thus been acknowledged. The survivors, however, had hoped for more, including some kind of redress or compensation. To date, there is no law on this matter. Making things worse, many perpetrators have not been sentenced yet, too many of them are still at large.
To lessen the burden on Rwanda’s national judiciary, many trials were held at the grassroots level, by so called Gacaca courts. What is your assessment of these trials?
Without the Gacaca approach, it would have been impossible to hear so many cases and to sentence so many criminals. That is the upside. However, there are some downsides too. All too often, there was no effective defendant for the accused, and many judges were only poorly trained, or even not at all. Some judges were related to perpetrators. There were many faulty rulings. The privacy of the women who were supposed to speak about how they were raped was not protected. The trials were held behind closed doors, but nonetheless, the whole village knew what was said. Many women did not want to be stigmatised and remained silent.
How do your women’s forums contribute to Rwanda as a nation coming to terms with its past?
Well, by facing up courageously to their fate, every single one of our mothers contributes enormously to peace and reconciliation in Rwanda. Our forums encourage the women to take their fate into their own hands and find inner peace, in spite of the humiliation and violence they have suffered. In our view, finding peace within oneself is a precondition for society-wide peace. I’m not saying we do no longer demand justice and want criminals to be prosecuted, but ultimately, we want reconciliation.
Questions by Stefanie Keienburg