International legal protection for women and female children: Rwanda - a case study.

Author:Kritz, Brian A.
Position:Case study

    "I deplore the fact that sexual and gender-based violence continues to be used as a weapon of war in African conflicts ... Every effort must be made to halt this odious practice, and bring the perpetrators to justice." (2)

    Kofi Annan, United Nations Secretary-General, 7 July 2004

    Much attention has been paid to violence against women and female children during times of turmoil. (3) After conducting interviews in the conflict-ridden Darfur region of Sudan, Doctors Without Borders reported that 28 percent of women interviewed identified themselves as victims of gang rape. (4) During the unrest in Uganda, The Lord's Resistance Army rebels have consistently used sexual assault on the female civilian population as a method of intimidation and control. (5) Sexual violence also affected a large majority of Liberia's female population during the country's recent civil war. (6) In Sierra Leone, the number of victims of sexual assault attendant to the civil conflict is similarly high. (7) According to a Human Rights Watch report, almost two thousand sexual assault victims sought treatment at one Doctors Without Borders program after the January 1999 Freetown offensive. Over half of these women reported that they had been victims of gang-rape, with over 200 becoming pregnant from the sexual assault. (8) In the unstable Democratic Republic of the Congo, gender-based violence has been an ongoing problem and has been used as a weapon of war as a means of intimidation and control. (9)

    This study will address the endemic victimization of African women and female children and will posit a number of international legal reforms, applicable both during conflict and in times of peace, that might ameliorate such victimization. (10) Specifically, this study will focus on the Republic of Rwanda in the post-genocide era. The goal of this study is to demonstrate how other African nations can learn from the successes and failures of Rwanda, and how they can use these lessons to more effectively protect their women and female children from victimization that occurs during times of unrest.

    This study will begin by investigating cultural, historical, and political factors that have fostered the problems facing women and female children in Rwandan society, before discussing the problem of sexual assault during the genocide in Rwanda. This study will then explore the international legal mechanisms that Rwanda can utilize to improve the plight of women and female children during conflict, both in Rwanda and across the globe. (11) Part One of this study will introduce the problem of sexual assault during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda through an exploration of Rwanda's history prior to the atrocities. Part Two will address general international legal mechanisms that should be used by the government of Rwanda to better protect its female population. Part Three will suggest regional, legal mechanisms that may provide greater protection to women and female children during conflict. From this case study, hopefully other developing nations will use the lessons of Rwanda's tragic past and the availability of international legal tools presently at their disposal, to proactively ensure the safety of their own female populations in the future.


    1. Rwanda's Women--The Key to Rwanda's Future

      In Rwanda, as in most African nations, women play an enormously important role in the social and economic wellbeing of the family unit and society in general. In the immediate aftermath of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, the population of Rwanda was 70% female. (12) As of 2004, ten years after the genocide, women comprised approximately 54% of the Rwandan population. (13) A majority of members of the adult working population in Rwanda are women. (14) Women head 35% of households, are almost solely responsible for raising children, and produce the majority of all agricultural output. (15) Rwandan women comprise the majority of the voting public, and women also earn the majority of family income in the country. (16) Paul Rusesabagina, author of An Ordinary Man, stated that in some northern areas of Rwanda, such as Ruhengheri, 80% of the population is female, many being widows of the 1994 genocide. (17)

      If women are the lynchpin of Rwandan society, why was it that their status and safety in conflict-torn genocide-era Rwandan society was so greatly endangered by systematic sexual victimization, by soldiers, rebels, and the male civilian population alike? The answers seem to partly lie in the historical tradition and culture of impunity that plagues Rwanda to the present day.

    2. Country Overview

      Rwanda is a country of 26,338 square kilometers, situated in Central Africa. (18) The entire Rwandan population is composed of approximately eight million people. (19) Her neighbors are the Democratic Republic of Congo to the west, Uganda to the north, Burundi to the south, and Tanzania to the east. (20)

    3. The 1994 Genocide

      The tragedy of the Rwandan genocide is well known and well documented. On April 6, 1994, the President of Rwanda, Juvenal Habyarimana, and the President of Burundi, Cyprien Ntaryamira, were killed when their plane was shot down shortly after takeoff from the airport in the Rwandan capital city of Kigali. (21) Within hours of the assassination of the two presidents, the atrocities began. (22) Based on decades of indoctrination and brainwashing of the citizens of Rwanda by an increasingly radical government, the killing that began on April 6 spread to the general civilian population in short order. (23) Shortly after the killing commenced, the extremist-led genocide had spread to the general population, with civilian mobs accounting for much of the murder, rape, and other atrocities committed upon the Tutsi and moderate Hutu population. (24)

      After the targeted murders of United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) personnel by genocidal forces, the United Nations pulled the majority of its troops from Rwanda, out of concern for their personal safety. (25) At the same time, the United Nations Security Council debated the situation occurring in Rwanda but refrained from, in all references, deeming the killing to be genocide in order to avoid the international law requirement to undertake to prevent and punish genocide. (26) The United States and Rwanda's former colonial power, Belgium, also failed to act decisively to stop the atrocities. (27) France pledged troops, an act that was small in size and late in time, but these efforts failed to do much to establish peace or stability in the country. (28) On April 8, without the military support of a multinational peacekeeping force, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a rebel group of Rwandan expatriates based in Uganda, invaded Rwanda in order to stop the killings. (29) The RPF fighting force quickly secured the majority of Rwanda and took the capital city of Kigali on July 4, 1994, ending the genocide and seizing political power. (30) Within about one hundred days, between April and July 1994, approximately one million Rwandan people, mainly Tutsi and politically moderate Hutu, were killed by the regime, their militia, the Interhamwe, and the population at large. (31) As a point of comparison, if the same percentage of the population was killed in the United States, the total of those killed would be in excess of thirty-seven million. (32)

    4. Sexual Assault and the 1994 Genocide

      Sexual assault attendant to the Rwandan genocide was endemic, perpetrated by the Interhamwe, soldiers of the Rwandan Armed Forces, the Presidential Guard, government officials, and civilians alike. (33) Interviews of survivors indicated that, in addition to rape, other forcible sexual offenses were prevalent. (34) A 1997 UNICEF report, Children and Women of Rwanda, reported that hundreds of thousands of Rwandan women were subject to sexual assault during the genocide, often after witnessing the torture and killing of their families and the destruction of their homes. (35) In a 2000 working paper, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) estimated that at least 200,000 Rwandan women suffered sexual violence during the genocide. (36) In many cases, such sexual assault preceded the killing of the victim. (37) This leads to the very real possibility that many homicide victims were not also identified as sexual assault victims, demonstrating that the number of sexual assault victims might be even higher than many estimates. (38) Similarly, considering many victims, both those who were subsequently killed and those who survived, suffered multiple sexual assaults by multiple assailants, the number of actual incidents is presumably much higher than some reports. (39)

      Those that survived were told they were being allowed to live only so that they would then die of sadness from the trauma and stigma of sexual victimization. Sexual victimization did not only consist of rape and other similar crimes, but took the form of sexual slavery as well. (40) Threats and coercion were utilized as means to force such victims to submit to the sexual advances of their captors. (41) In some cases, these so-called forced "marriages" lasted the entire duration of the genocide, or longer. (42) Cases of sexual mutilation were also common, performed with machetes, sticks, boiling water, and acid. (43)

    5. The Culture of Impunity in Rwanda (44)

      Beginning during decolonization in the early 1960s, and peaking the four years prior to the genocide, ethnically-motivated violence against the Tutsi was essentially decriminalized. (45) Such violent action without accountability became part of the culture in Rwanda, at least in part because the pre-genocide and genocide-era Rwandan governments demonstrated, through repeated prosecutorial inaction for ethnically-motivated attacks, that there would never be prosecution for such actions. (46) This culture of impunity, fostered for over...

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