Opening Thought

According to Powley (2004) “Rwandans believe that in their victimization and endurance, women bore the brunt of the genocide and therefore deserve a significant and official role in the nation’s recovery. So we see that the execution of the genocide was gendered, in terms of who participated and how people were targeted.”


The Rwandan genocide was gendered. It affected men and women differently, enacted socially constructed meanings of biological differences and constituted gender relations in the post genocide period. The significance of many atrocities may be underestimated if we ignore the impact of genocide on gender. Unfortunately, few genocide scholars made distinctions among victims in terms of either sex or gender. Scholars’ increasing ability to distinguish, analytically, between sex and gender coincided with two genocides, in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, which demonstrated to the entire world the enormous impact of genocide on gender and vice versa (Rafter and Bell, 2013). According to

Powley (2004),

“Rwandans believe that in their victimization and endurance, women bore the brunt of the genocide and therefore deserve a significant and official role in the nation’s recovery. So we see that the execution of the genocide was gendered, in terms of who participated and how people were targeted.”

This paper discusses Powley’s assertions vis-à-vis justification of women’s participation in the democratization process in Rwanda.

Key words: Genocide, Democratization process and Gender



The term Genocide was coined by Raphael Lemkin in 1933. He defines it as “the criminal intent to destroy or to cripple permanently a human group. The acts are directed against groups, as such individuals are selected for destruction only because they belong to these groups” (Andreopoulos 1994: p.1). Lemkin’s definition was adopted and expanded by the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide (UNGC), established in 1951. Article II of the 1948 UNCG defines genocide as follows:

‘In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: Killing members of the group; Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; and Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.’


According to World Bank (2013: p.4) the term “gender refers to the socially-constructed differences between men and women, as distinct from ‘sex’, which refers to their biological differences.” In all societies, men and women play different roles, have different needs, and face different constraints. Gender roles differ from the biological roles of men and women, although they may overlap.

Democratisation process

According to Samarasinghe (1994) the concept of democracy, in its simplest form, can be defined using the two Greek words demos (people) and kratos (rule) that combine to make the word democracy, meaning “rule by the people”. Therefore, according to Welzel and Inglehart (2008) democratization process is by which this happens.

Genocide was gendered and Women bore the brunt

The Rwandan genocide of 1994 resulted in the death of between 800,000 and 850,000 people. An assessment of gender in pre-genocide Rwanda shows the level of violence used against women in the 1994 Genocide. In the 1959, 1964, and 1973 conflicts between Hutu and Tutsi in Rwanda, women were not the targets of violence. However, in the 1994 genocide, women were killed in equal numbers or exceeding numbers compared to men. The construction of gender might explain the difference about the violence in 1994 and previous violence (Taylor, 1999).

The BBC argues that it has a duty to investigate difficult and challenging subjects

Consequently, rape was used in a systematic manner to destroy the culture of the Tutsis. Thus, it is estimated that every woman who survived the genocide was a victim of sexual assault. Seventy percent of the women raped had been infected with HIV. The Tutsi women were specifically targeted based on their ethnicity as well as their gender. Moreover, in a cultural context it is perceived that the honor of a woman is violated through rape and the intended goal is to destroy a community (Thomas and Ralph, 1994).

Copelon (1994) asserts that women were targets not simply because they “belong to” the enemy, but specifically because they keep the civilian population functioning and are essential to its continuity. Furthermore, they were targets because of their power as well as their vulnerability as women, including their sexual and reproductive power.

The extreme poverty that resulted from the genocide gave some women little choice but to enter into prostitution, putting women at risk for further violence and abuse. Women and girls were targets for forced marriage, rape, polygamy and other forms of gender based violence. Many men were killed in the genocide, leaving female-headed household and orphans. In 2004 Thirty –six percent of households in Rwanda were headed by women, as compared to twenty-one percent in 1992 (Eftekhari, 2004).

Women’s Participation in the Democratization Process

Some Rwandans began to argue that in seeking healing from the genocide, women, especially mothers, had an honored place in pre-colonial history thus had huge potential to take peaceful leadership roles. Furthermore, women are trusted in the tasks of reconciliation and reconstruction in part because they have not been implicated in the violence to the same extent as men. Despite not joining the violence in great numbers, women were certainly victimized. There is an observation that women are better at reconciliation and are less corrupt than men. Rwandans believe that women are highly motivated to prevent conflicts since bore the brunt of the genocide (Uwineza and Pearson 2009).

Moreover, Krook (2013) argues that increasing women’s political presence has been proposed by activists and scholars around the globe as a means to enhance democracy. This is motivated by arguments that the inclusion of women is crucial for achieving justice, promoting women’s interests, and making use of women’s resources for the good of society. In addition, Carlson and Randell (2013) argue that the advancement of women is critical to good governance, social and economic development. After all, women’s participation in democracy process is a fundamental human right that must be recognised and secured for women in Rwanda.

Furthermore, Rwandan women’s participation in the democratization process is justified since democratic societies usually have more women in parliament than undemocratic societies. However, there are a few authoritarian societies, such as China, that have large numbers of women in parliament; while Japan, Ireland, France and the U.S. have high levels of democracy and relatively few women in parliament. But despite these exceptions, in democratic societies, women tend to be relatively well represented in parliament. Although the percentage of women in parliament shows no direct impact on a society’s level of democracy, the norm of gender equality is intimately involved in the process of democratization (Inglehart, et al, 2004).

In addition, it must be borne in mind that in the immediate genocide aftermath, the population was 70 percent female. Thus, women took up roles as heads of household, community leaders and financial providers, meeting the needs of devastated families and communities. In many cases, women developed skills they would not otherwise have acquired. Therefore, women deserve a place decision making since they still remain a demographic majority and contribute significantly to the productive capacity of the nation. This was affirmed by President Paul Kagame in April of 2003, speaking about the upcoming parliamentary elections;

‘…Increased participation of women in politics is, therefore, necessary for improved social, economic and political conditions of their families and the entire country.’ (Powley, 2006).

Rwandan President Paul Kagame (center) has been a proponent of putting women in positions of power. He’s shown participating in a 2010 conference at the nation’s Parliament to discuss the role of women.
Jason Straziuso


Based on the reality of most women’s experiences during the genocide, it is a justified cause for women to seek to gain entrance into decision-making positions and to influence policy. Rwanda’s recovery and reconstruction must address the gendered implications of the genocide. Consideration must be made on the specific needs of; widows and women whose husbands are in prison; survivors of sexual torture and rape; children born of rape and HIV/AIDS infections resulting from the genocide. Women parliamentarians in Rwanda have been credited with advocating for gender sensitive laws. Thus, women need a significant and official role in the nation’s recovery and democratization process of Rwanda. Rwanda’s commitment to the inclusion of women is evident throughout the government. Rwanda is a signatory to various international instruments that uphold women’s rights.


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Copelon, Rhonda. (1994) “Surfacing Gender: Reconceptualizing Crimes Against Women in Time of War.” Pp. 197-218 in Mass Rape: The War Against Women In Bosnia-Herzegovina, edited by A. Stiglmayer. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

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