Research conducted by Robin Spencer, 2009
The Rwandan genocide and its repercussions is a poignant example of the intersection between gender-based violence, HIV infection, and poverty. The events and their aftermath show how these issues, as a collective, perpetuate the vulnerability of women.
During the 100 days of the Rwandan genocide, sexual violence was not just a weapon it was genocide in and of itself, "a step in the process of destruction of the Tutsi group—destruction of the spirit, of the will to live, and of life itself."1 Between 250,000 and 500,000 women and girls were raped, gang-raped, or sexually mutilated; 67% of the survivors contracted HIV.2 Spreading the HIV infection was also a method of destruction, in fact in her article Rape and HIV/AIDS in Rwanda, activist Paula Donovan wrote: "Eyewitnesses recounted later that marauders carrying the virus described their intentions to their victims: they were going to rape and infect them as an ultimate punishment that would guarantee long-suffering and tormented deaths."3 The consequences of this abuse are lasting and harsh, as survivors still face ongoing trauma, isolation, social exclusion, HIV/AIDS and other diseases.
The prevalence of trauma symptoms is one of the principal repercussions. A 1999 study by Avega Agahozo, an umbrella organization for genocide widows, reported 80% of surveyed women showed signs of trauma.4 Research on other war torn populations also suggests traumatic exposure is a major issue in post-conflict areas. While trauma assessments in Rwanda are scarce, the more pressing issue is the shortage of counseling and therapy resources. Following the Rwandan genocide, the one psychiatric hospital in the country was in ruins—all of its patients and most of the staff were killed. By 2008, nearly 15 years after the genocide, only 3 psychiatrists operated clinical practices.5
Trauma and HIV infection were not the only issues that women and girls were left to handle. By the end of the Rwandan genocide the population was 70% female, leaving the women survivors to rebuild the country, hold leadership positions, head households, and become the financial providers.6 In many ways, this has led to a major shift in Rwandan society: the Washington Post reported women are the "most potent economic force" driving Rwanda's revival; the Rwandan parliament is the first in the world to have women hold the majority (56%); and legislation has been amended to end gender-based and sexual violence.7 Even still, these progressive measures have not overpowered the societal biases that perpetuate violence against women.
Gender-based violence remains embedded within the culture, and girls are vulnerable to abuse from a very young age. According to an article in Rwanda's newspaper, The New Times, the Rwanda National Police reported in 2008 that in the prior three years there were 2000 reported cases of rape and almost 10,000 cases of defilement of children below the age of 18.8 As Aurelien Agbenoncim, UN residence coordinator in Rwanda, said in a media release by the Rwanda Association of University Women: "It's shaming that the level of gender-based violence is increasing."9
Across the continent of Africa, young girls report being coerced into early sexual experience. Although there is no specific data on Rwanda, the World Bank reports 40-47% of sexual assaults worldwide are perpetrated against girls (age 15 or younger) by male relatives, neighbors or, more commonly, by male teachers.10 As girls grow into womanhood they continue to face sexual violence and exploitation, and many are pushed to the fringes of society and sometimes even rejected by their families. For some young girls and women, the absence of the security and support from the community makes prostitution seem like the only means of survival.
In Byimana, a rural community two hours outside of Kigali, a group of teachers noticed that girls were dropping out of school, and others were complaining of being attacked and harassed in the latrines. After conducting a baseline study of the issue in their communities, they found 32 percent of girls chose not to attend school during their menstrual cycle because they were spied on and laughed at or because they lacked sanitary facilities. An astounding 72 percent of the boys had seen girls without their clothes on: 50 percent had watched girls while they were in the latrines; 19 percent admitted they took girls' clothes off by force.
In response to this problem, a team led by Mediatrice Mushimiyimana, a local school teacher, launched Think About the Young Girls, a Global Grassroots social venture to build single-sex latrines and educate the community about violence facing young girls. This team has successfully gathered support from the local government, established an anti-violence club in school and has built new sanitation facilities to serve 635 girls. The project's mission is that girls will no longer be targets of sexual violence nor will they be too embarrassed to attend school once they start menstruation.
In Kinamba, Kigali a group of 45 women and men identified women's involvement in sex work and in turn, exposure to and lack of knowledge of HIV/AIDS, as one of the greatest problems facing their community. With training and a small grant from Global Grassroots they established the Meg Foundation Tailoring School to teach former sex workers how to sew, to provide literacy training, and to train the women on reproductive health, HIV/AIDS prevention and domestic violence. In January 2009, the Meg Foundation School graduated its first class of 30 students; the second class graduated in June 2009. Not only have all 30 women from the first graduating class left the sex trade, but they have also formed their own sewing cooperative to fundraise for sewing machines, to solicit larger contracts, to develop a credit and loan scheme, and to continue to support each other.
Currently, the school is operating sustainably by selling fabric shopping bags made by the women to generate income to cover their operating costs.
1Mukomeze, ed. "Sexual Violence during the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda: Scale, Causes, Objectives and Forms." Article from Gretchen. 2008. Web.
3Donovan, Paula. "Rape and HIV/AIDS in Rwanda." Lancet 360.9350 (2002): 17. EBSCO Host. Web. 13 Aug. 2009.
4"Trauma Counseling Vital to Recovery from Sexual Violence." IRIN (In-depth). PeaceWomen Project. Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, 7 Feb. 2007. Web. 26 Aug. 2009.
6McCrummen, Stephanie. "Women Run the Show In a Recovering Rwanda." The Washington Post 27 Oct. 2008, A01 sec. The Washington Post. The Washington Post Company. Web. 16 July 2009.
8Kamugisha, Joseph. "Gender-Based Violence Should Be Society's Big Health Concern." The New Times. The New Times, 10 Mar. 2009. Web. 13 Aug. 2009.
9Ruburika, Sam. "Media Release: Gender-Based Violence Has Dire Social Implications." Focus Media [Kigali, Rwanda]. The Rwanda Assocation of University Women. Web.
10"Public Health at a Glance - Core Intervention 1: Health Related School Policies." The World Bank. 2009. Web. 28 July 2009.
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