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The role of Women in the Rwandan Genocide


By: Elena Kattou

April 6th 1994 will always be remembered as a day marked by unleashed terror and violence leading to one of the worst tragedies of the twentieth century. On April 6, 1994 a plane carrying Rwandan President Habyarimana was shot down. Almost simultaneously, a wave of extreme violence and killings took over the whole country. In approximately one hundred days, up to 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutus were slaughtered by Hutu extremists.

The 1994 genocide in Rwanda was the result of systematic killings from the Hutu extremist population. One of the most distinctive features of the Rwandan genocide was the high level of integration and organized killing from both male and female Hutus. This organised and comprehensive approach to recruiting as much of the population as possible to participate in the slaughter is the reason the number of fatalities was so high. In fact it has been acknowledged that the killers had adopted a “strategy to involve as much of the population as possible; men, women and even children” (African Rights report, 1995).

There is a tendency to generalise the victimization of the female population in cases of violence. Without disregarding the horrendous violations that the Tutsi female population suffered, it is important to address the role of women in the Rwandan genocide, not only as victims but as combatants and predators.

A Hutu woman who was convicted of genocide and is now in Gitarama prison, stated “many women were involved in the genocide. I am a woman and I participated, so I think other women did too” (Hogg, 2010).According to official statistics almost 2000 women remain in Rwandan prisons on genocide-related offences.

Women fromevery social category and educational background played a role in the killings. Educated women bear particular responsibility for the breadth and depth of female participation in the killings. Women who held key positions in the interim government promoted and helped in the orchestration of the genocide. Some of the most prestigious and highly recognized women of the Rwandan society at that time have been charged with having a prominent role in the orchestration and perpetuation of the genocide. There is conclusive evidence indicating that Agathe Kanziga’s, widow of former Rwandan president Habyarimana, was involved in the preparation and execution of the genocide (Hogg, 2010). In particular, her role in the creation and support of the extensive use of propaganda by the radical radio station ‘RTML, and the radical newspaper ‘Kangura’. She has also been accused for her catalytic role in the establishment and training of the Interahamwe militia which curried the majority of the killings.

“The extent to which women were involved in the killings is unprecedented anywhere in the world” (African Rights report, 1995). Following extensive research based on victim and perpetrators’ testimonies, it has been documented that women had a critical role in many cases during the genocide. Though some of them willingly participated, others were forced under threat of violence to join in the slaughter. Women, including in some cases young girls, engaged in horrific acts that led to the bloodshed of other women and children, and sometimes even men. They prevailed as “cheerleaders” of the genocide, providing psychological and physical motivation to the killers.Both educated women and peasants identified the Tutsi population, giving directions as to where people were hiding. In many occasions, some female nurses and teachers handed over patients and students to the militia.“Even nuns were involved. A number of nuns [were] not only accused of closing the door on their desperate parishioners and other refugees […] identifying and handing people over to the killers” (African Rights report, 1995).

However, little attention has been paid to the role of women as aggressors in the genocide. The role of women in conflict and, in this case, genocide has been over-simplified and categorized mostly as the main victims of the genocide.To quote Ronit Lenitin, “ the involvement of women in the genocide and murder of Hutu political opponents failed to attract national and international attention, [due to] the construction of women as the universal victims of that particular catastrophe” (Lentin ,1997, pp.12-13).

Indeed, women are often the victims of violent conflicts and the Rwandan genocide was no exception.But it is evident that traditional perspectives that treat predominantly males as being an active source of violence during conflict, and women as the victims, is being challenged in the Rwandan genocide. Women regardless rationale; being forced, willingly or just for reasons of survival, have experienced and been exposed in a culture of violence and terror. Therefore, it is equally important to acknowledge and address this transformation of gender roles in the genocide, in order to employ further developments that can have significant impact for the post-genocide Rwandan society.


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.

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