This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide – over the course of 100 days, beginning April 7 1994, the Hutu elite of Rwanda murdered over 800 000 of the Tutsi minority and Hutu moderates who did not support the killings.
During the genocide, Rwandan women, particularly Tutsi women, were subjected to widespread brutal sexual violence. Ethnic tensions and gender conceptions fueled sexual violence against Tutsi women.
Members of all warring groups – particularly the infamous Hutu militia group, the Interahamwe, and the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) – used sexual violence as a strategic war tactic to further their goal of eliminating the Tutsi minority. Although there is no exact number indicating the extent of rape during the genocide, an ongoing collection of data reveals at least 250 000 women were subjected to sexual violence. Women were raped, gang-raped or held in sexual slavery. Many were sexually mutilated during or following rape. Often, women were killed immediately after being raped. Rape by HIV-positive men to infect women was also used as a strategy to eliminate a new generation of Tutsi children.
Although armed groups used sexual violence against all Rwandan women, Tutsi women were particularly targeted due to their ethnicity. The infamous Hutu militia group – the Interahamwe – used hate propaganda to further instigate and justify sexual violence against Tutsi women. The Interahamwe spread extremist messages via print media and radio accusing Tutsi women of using their sexuality to infiltrate and control the Hutu community. There is also evidence that administrative, military and political leaders directed and encouraged the use of sexual violence against Tutsi women to further their political goal.
In the aftermath of the genocide, survivors of sexual violence were often isolated from their communities due to the social stigma associated with rape. In addition to social marginalization, sexual violence survivors often suffered from serious health issues – many HIV-positive militiamen purposefully raped Tutsi women to infect them with the disease. A study conducted by the Association of Genocide Widows of Rwanda (AVEGA) in 2000 gathered testimony from 1 000 genocide sexual violence survivors. Sixty-seven percent were HIV-positive.
The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) – established in 1994 – continues to pursue justice through prosecuting those responsible for the genocide and serious violations of humanitarian law. The ICTR set legal precedent for prosecuting sexual violence in 1998 during the trial of Rwandan mayor Jean Paul Akayesu, charged for his failure to prevent the murder and rape of Tutsis living in his jurisdiction. The trial found that rape and sexual violence used with the intent to destroy a particular group constitute genocide. This important distinction has contributed to the advancement of justice with respect to crimes of sexual violence committed in conflict.