By: Elena Kattou
The 1994 genocide in Rwanda had devastating consequences for the Rwandan society as a whole. The intensity and cruelty of the 1994 events left behind a chaotic situation marked by extensive number of casualties, and a society characterised from fear and insecurity. In the aftermath of the 1994 genocide, “70% of the population in Rwanda was female[…] while the violence against women was horrific, in comparison, men as a group were the primary targets of extermination,[…] women became the surviving face of conflict” (O’Reilly, 2011).
It has been acknowledged that prior to and during the genocide, Rwandan women in the majority, had been a typical example of the general rule that sees women: underrepresented in politics and victimized during violence and conflict, mainly due to the systematic use of sexual abuse and violence towards the female population. However, during the Rwandan genocide a significant number of female populations have been charged of having an active role, breaking the patriarchal customs of violence. Moreover, as one argues, women in Rwanda had a leading role in the post-conflict reconstruction and peacebuilding efforts. Women have been active in both grassroots and policy level.
One of the immediate challenges after the genocide was to reinstate and preserve security. With the end of the genocide, “the massive repatriation of refugees was followed by an insurgency waged by the Interahamwe and ex-Far combatants”(Izabiliza, 2010). The immediate response and initiative of the Rwandan women in the case of remerging new violence was catalytic. Putting their own life in danger, women started a campaign acting as mediators between the government troops and their relatives in order to disaffiliate from the insurgency. By using peaceful and diplomatic methods, women negotiated a peaceful surrender between the two parties. Their involvement in this security threat situation demonstrates only one of the numerous contributions in the peacebuilding process.
In addition to their significant role in post genocide security issues, women’s role in the rehabilitation and reconstruction process has been crucial and recognized by the government of National Unity. For the first time in the Rwandan history women had broken the chain of the patriarchal society by performing non-traditional tasks like house construction. Women participated in the construction of houses in the newly established settlements known as imidugugu (Mutambla and Izabiliza, 2005). Rwandan women engaged in concrete activities such as helping orphans, fostering them, supporting victims of famine and flood. It is estimated that between 400,000 and 500,000 children were fostered or adopted by families and women headed households (Izabiliza, 2010).
Demonstrating gendered knowledge and initiative abilities, women worked together in order to develop solidarity and unity amongst themselves. An example of their efforts was the creation of the Unity Club acting “as a forum of top women leaders and spouses of top leaders in government aimed at creating unity among themselves;[ …]able to preach the message of unity and reconciliation among the communities”(Izabiliza, 2010). Through the Unity club, women from different backgrounds were able to identify the need for socio-economic changes, to lobby these ideas and eventually influence in the ratification of laws that protect and promote the rights of women from a holistic social range.
In addition, women in Rwanda have shown their ability to be commendable leaders at the community level as well as the policy level. Identifying the transformation and the significant role of women in the Rwanda society the Government of National Unity facilitated a national mechanism to ensure that women play an active role in post genocide political and societal sphere by establishing the ministry in charge of Family and Women’s Affairs. Rwandan women in different leadership positions had a critical role in mobilizing women and the community as a whole to work together in order to find common solutions to their country’s problems. Their involvement in the peacebuilding process has led to the transformation of their status and possibilities in the decision making of the country. Indeed, the mere presence of women in parliament has been recognized by the international society. According to International Parliamentary Union at the end of 2011, Rwanda is the most women friendly parliament in the world with 56.3 per cent females in the lower house (Picq, 2012).
One may argue that women’s active involvement and presence in the Rwandan society indicates the existence of positive transformations and developments for a more peaceful and gender equal society. Their role has been remarkable and it highlights the need to employ and secure the existence of a gendered framework in the peacebuilding and post conflict reconstruction process.
An international development on women’s role in peacebuilding has been the United Nations Security Council resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security that calls on states to consider women’s inclusion in post conflict reforms such as disarmament, security, judicial, constitutional and electoral processes. The Rwandan case highlights the positive impact that women can have in the peacebuilding process as well as in further socio-economical implications for the country as a whole.
A graduate of Politics & International Relations from Kent University, Elena Kattou is currently studying for an MSc in International Development and Humanitarian Emergencies at London School of Economics and interning with Justice Africa.