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Women from Rwanda tell their accounts of being forced into sexual slavery, sometimes called "forced marriages."

During the genocide of 1994 in Rwanda, many women were forced into sexual slavery. This slavery was often referred to as "forced marriage."

Two women tell their experiences.

Ancille's Story

Ancille (not her real name), a twenty-three-year-old woman, was at home with her mother and four brothers when about forty militia armed with machetes, sticks and nail-studded clubs stormed into the house. They immediately killed Ancille's mother and brothers in front of her, looted everything and then burnt the house. She knew some of the attackers. Then, she explained:

One of the Interahamwe started hitting me. He cut me on the leg and told me that I was going to be his wife. I had seen him before because he was from Shyanda commune. He took me to his house and other Interahamwe came to look at me. He would lock me in the house in the day and in the evening he would come home and I would be his wife. Three times during the time that this Interahamwe kept me, other groups of Interahamwe came and found me. They brought me out and took me to a mass grave nearby. But all three times, he saw me and saved my life. Sometimes he was kind to me and he told me once that if I died he would bury me. In Rwanda, it is important to be buried. Other times, he would become angry and shout at me for sitting and spending the day thinking about my dead family. He told me that I should cook for him. I wouldn't say that I was taken by force. I did it to save my life. He was my husband. I lived like that until July when the RPF came and arrested him. I heard that he was arrested and later killed. When he was taken, I was one month pregnant. As soon as he was arrested, his family told me to leave his house and accused me of being connected to the RPF. I am now staying with some friends. I delivered my baby in March 1995 and the baby died after one month.

When asked whether she really considered this militia man to be her husband or whether she just called him that, Ancille replied: "When my family was killed and I was taken like this, I thought that I would have to live with this man forever because I had no one else to go to." Later on in the interview, she suddenly interrupted and returned abruptly to the subject:

. . . You know . . . we call these men our husbands. But they were not a true love. I hated this man. Maybe later on you could even be killed by them. Before the war I had a fiancée . . . This happened to a lot of young girls-even school girls around eighteen years old were kept like this. In my commune I know of three women. One of these women is still with her "husband." People say that he didn't kill anyone.

Jeanne's Story

Jeanne (not her real name), one of the young women who was abducted and married in this manner, described what occurred:

I knew I was condemned to this . . . I thought this is a death, like other deaths . . . I thought to be taken as a wife is a form of death. Rape is a crime worse than others. There's no death worse than that. The problem is that women and girls don't say what happened to them.

When the fighting began in the south-eastern prefecture of Kibungo, nineteen-year-old Jeanne and her two sisters, ages seventeen and thirteen, were separated from the rest of her family. They took refuge in a nearby woods. While hiding, they overheard some militia talking and learned that their family had been killed, their house destroyed and the militia were looking for the rest of them. She knew some of them, but not all. She and her sisters then went to another wooded area, and ran into someone who used to watch their cows. He confirmed what had happened and told them that the militia were looking for them. He hid them and brought food at night, but was unable to do much more for fear that the Interahamwe would find out. After a week, the three sisters made their way to their grandparents' house. They found the house destroyed, and their grandparents' dead bodies lying on the floor. They went to the neighbors, who refused to hide them. Exhausted and hungry, the girls told the neighbors either to hand them over or to help them. The neighbors called the militia. The militia took the three sisters to the house of the head of the militia (a former neighbor). There, they were locked up with three of their cousins, all girls, ages fifteen, seventeen and eighteen. The militia told them that a local official had instructed them not to kill the young girls.

Shortly afterwards, a meeting was called for the militia from three sectors-Vumwe, Kansana and Kaberangwe. All six girls were brought before the meeting and asked how they had survived and who had helped them. They responded, by saying: "we are here because we were starving in the woods. Either kill us or let us go.' The head of the militia, Bonaventure Mutabazi, decreed that the four older girls would be given as wives to those militia who had killed a lot-as a prize. The two younger girls would continue to be confined and guarded by the militia. The following day, a marriage celebration was held. The militia conducted the ceremony themselves. The head of the militia decided which girl would be given to which militia member. Jeanne said:

Bonaventure Mutabazi already had two wives, but he took me. The others were given to the militia without wives, who then took them back to their houses. The two youngest ones were sent to stay in a neighbor's house. After that, I began a new life. I worked in the fields and in the house. I asked to go see the area where I was from, but he refused. We were told that our family's land would be split among our husbands. We spent two weeks as "wives." I thought that I would live like that until my death. All four of us were kept separately. We weren't allowed to see or speak to each other.

During the time that Jeanne was held captive, the militia would come to the house and brag about what they had done. She recounted:

They would say things like "a certain girl was too proud-so we raped her and then killed her." Others would just talk about how they had raped. They would say "we wanted to see how Tutsi look. We want to see the buttocks of a Tutsi." They talked about cutting open a pregnant woman just to see the child's position inside. They told me that they would leave me alive because my parents were intelligent so I would make smart babies.

In a twist of fate, Jeanne was finally rescued by her brother, an RPF fighter, who came looking for her and her sisters. She said:

One day, I heard shooting. The Interahamwe told us that we had to flee with them. My brother, who was an RPF soldier, had found an Interahamwe who told him where we were. Since my brother knew the area, he came straight to the house where I was being held. There were many Interahamwe there because that was also where they sold beer. I was inside the house, watching the second wife's children, when I heard people running. The RPF began shooting, and even the women ran away, leaving their children behind. I decided to stay where I was, so at least I'd be killed by a bullet. The RPF fighters called me, and I saw my brother. He didn't even say hello-he just said "tell me where the others are." It was a miracle. We had to move quickly to get the others or they would be taken away. We began at the house where my cousins were. We told them to come and to help look for the others. My two other sisters were being abducted by a group of militia who were fleeing the RPF. My brother saw them and warned the group that if they didn't let them go, things would happen to them. My sisters could not respond or the militia would kill them. They finally released them, although the "husband" of the younger one tried to stop her.

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 an 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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