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Interviews of Rwandan rape survivors reveal continuing discrimination, high rates of sexually transmitted diseases like HIV/AIDS, unwanted pregnancies, little access to healthcare and rampant poverty following the 1994 genocide. All of this is compounded by the shame of surviving sexual torture.

According to Human Rights Watch, the status of women in Rwanda has never been good. However, after the genocide of 1994, the situation only became worse.

As of September 1996, women were estimated to make up 70% of the post-genocide Rwandan population. Rebuilding Rwanda therefore requires empowering and enabling Rwandan women. However, this is a daunting challenge. Women in Rwanda faced significant discrimination and health problems before the genocide. Since the genocide, matters have only gotten worse.

Women Are Dependent on Males

In traditional Rwandan society, women are the dependents of males—whether father, husband or sons. A woman is expected to be protected and managed by the males in her family. Her life is centered around her position as mother and wife.

This is nowhere more evident than in property rights. Rwandan customary law designates men as the heads of households. And, even though discriminating against women is prohibited by the Rwandan Constitution, it is customary law that generally holds sway. Under customary law, not only will a woman not inherit property, but she may even count as the husband's “belongings” after he dies.

But, what happens when a woman has lost her husband, her sons and her father? What access does she have to her family's property?

Because of the discrimination that women face in Rwandan property law, a woman is likely to find it difficult to impossible to reclaim her family's property without a male family member. This is particularly tragic when the woman is trying to rebuild her life. As one human rights activist tells it:

“Women lost their families, their houses, their property—everything. Now they have to raise their surviving children and the children of other dead family and friends . . . Many women who have lost everything have taken in other people's children. But they do not get the property that comes with these children which could help them live . . . They stay in abandoned houses, yet fear putting money into them and then losing it to the former owners. They are often chased from the family property.”

Women's Opportunities beyond the Home Are Limited

In pre-genocide Rwanda, women's roles were limited by the idealized notion of women as child bearers. This ideal of woman as mother had effects across different aspects of a woman's life.


Women, as a rule, received very little education in pre-genocide Rwanda. Girls made up 45% of primary school students, but by secondary school, boys outnumbered girls 9 to 1. By the university level, that disparity had grown to 15 to 1. It remains to be seen whether educational opportunities will open up for women in post-genocide Rwanda.


Before 1994, the Rwandan Constitution guaranteed all citizens the right to participate in the political process. In reality, however, women were largely absent from the political arena. As a voter, a women was expected to vote in accordance with her husband's wishes. It was her husband's conscience, and not her own, that dictated how she cast her ballot.

Women made up a very small proportion of political office holders. Prior to the genocide, female membership in parliament never rose above 17%. No women were appointed within the executive branch until 1990 and even then constituted only 5.26% of the appointees. Three women served as ministers in the multi-party governments formed after 1991. Agathe Uwilingiyimana, a woman who became prime minister in 1993, was one of the first leaders to be killed when the carnage began.

There are some hopeful signs, however. Following the genocide, women's rights and support groups are beginning to emerge. However, it is unclear to what degree the organization of women in the private sector will leverage women's participation in the public sphere.

Work Opportunities

Not only were women limited from owning property, but informal discrimination practices limited women's ability to obtain credit. Because the woman's place was at home, an estimated 65-70% of agricultural labor was carried out by women on family farms. With no paid income, it was nearly impossible for a woman to get a loan.

When a woman did apply for a loan, she was often required to get her husband's permission before hand. This second-class citizen status for women in the economic arena was made explicit in the Commercial Code. The Code contained a provision stipulating that a woman could not engage in commercial activity without the express authorization of her husband.

After the genocide, women are trying to rebuild their lives while providing food, shelter and school fees for her children (and, often other children orphaned by the genocide). Participation in some form of commercial activity is necessary for survival. If the pre-genocide economic discrimination against Rwandan women is carried over into the post-genocide period, then the women who survived the catastrophe have little hope of being able to succeed in rebuilding their lives and the country's economy.

Domestic Abuse Is Common

Before the genocide, the Rwandan government estimated that one-fifth of women were victims of domestic violence. There is a Rwandan proverb that states that a woman who has not yet been beaten is not a real woman.

If being subject to violence is the mark of a real women, then (by some estimates) every woman in Rwanda is a real woman following the genocide.

It is not clear that the situation of women will improve after the genocide. Some estimate that nearly all women who survived the genocide were raped or sexually assaulted in some way or another. The going assumption of refugees returning to Rwanda is that if a woman survived, then she must have been willing to have sex with the men carrying out the violence. In any event, the stigma on the women who were raped (or who are assumed to have been raped) is heavy. It is not difficult to imagine that women who have been stigmatized in this way will be even more at risk for further domestic violence.

Women's Health

Prior to the genocide, health care for women in Rwanda was abysmal. Sixty-three percent of deaths among women in 1993 (the year before the genocide) were related to their reproductive system. Maternal mortality was alarming due to insufficient maternal health care, lack of family planning facilities and inadequate medical technology. Malnutrition was very high.

These were the conditions before the genocide. Women's health has only deteriorated precipitously after the genocide. As a result of the wide-spread sexual assault:

  • The incidence of rape has increased, though it is difficult to tell how much,
  • Young girls who were raped are at high risk for vesico-vaginal and recto-vaginal fistulas and future uterine problems,
  • Women and girls who were sexually tortured and mutilated face complications associated with vaginal scarring likely to affect their ability to have children or have normal sex in the future,
  • Many women became pregnant. The already high maternal death rate is augmented by complications associated with self-induced abortions of the unwanted pregnancies. Because abortion is illegal, women who do take the risk of aborting the babies are unlikely to seek medical help when serious complications result.

Tragically, because of the stigma and threat of ostracization, women are hesitant to seek the medical help they desperately need.

Additionally, the dangers of malnutrition, lack of access to healthy water and inadequate medical care has also increased. Women who are displaced from their property and who have lost their husbands and farmers are often forced to live as vagrants while caring for children who might also have contracted deadly diseases from the violence.

Children of Rape

Many women choose not to abort the children resulting from rape (an estimated 2000 to 5000 have given birth to these children, according to medical authorities). These children, often referred to as “unwanted children,” or “children of the Interahamwe” are often rejected, especially by the mother's family.

One Hutu woman, Rose, describes her reaction and the reaction of her family to her rape induced pregnancy:

“Later, I found out that I was pregnant and I was unhappy. I thought about having an abortion, but I was afraid of dying. I knew that I was going to have an unwanted child and that I was not able to look after a baby. But I didn't want to behave like an Interahamwe and abandon my baby. So, I have kept my baby. He is now one year and four months. Almost all my family members have refused to accept the baby—it is a child of an Interahamwe. They have told me that they do not want a child of wicked people. They always tell me that when my baby grows up that they will not give him a parcel of land. I don't know what is going to happen to him."

Bottom Line

Rwandan women faced systematic discrimination and poor healthcare before the genocide. However, since the genocide, the situation of women has become desperate. Interviews of rape survivors reveal continuing discrimination, high rates of sexually transmitted diseases like HIV/AIDS, unwanted pregnancies, little access to healthcare and rampant poverty. All of this is compounded by the shame of surviving sexual torture.

Data and Methods:


Information was gathered by Human Rights Watch/FIDH in March and April 1996. Human Rights Watch/FIDH worked closely with Rwandan women's rights organization to ensure that rape survivors were approached only by someone the victims knew and could trust. Women in six of the 11 prefectures were interviewed.

In addition to gathering information from sexual assault survivors, Human Rights Watch/FIDH interviewed people from the following organizations:

  • Nongovernmental human rights and women's rights organizations, social workers, journalists, doctors and nurses,
  • Individuals within the Rwandan government, including representatives from the Ministry of Family and the Promotion of Women, the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Health and the prosecutor's office,
  • International humanitarian organizations,
  • United Nations Human Rights Operation, the UNAMIR peacekeeping operation and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.

Funding Source:

While direct financial support for this report is not provided, individuals from the following organizations contributed to the report:

  • Human Rights Watch/Africa,
  • Human Rights Watch Women's Rights Project,
  • Fédération Internationale des Ligues des Droits de l'Homme,
  • Human Rights Watch.
Full Text Availability:
Full text of the report is available at:

Human Rights Watch. 1996. Shattered Lives: Sexual Violence During the Rwandan Genocide and its Aftermath. New York: Human Rights Watch.

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