A Study in Violence: Examining Rape in the 1994 Rwandan Genocide

By Violet K. Dixon
2009, Vol. 1 No. 12 | pg. 1/1

“The genocide was a collective act. What made it possible, what made that final political crime possible was the absence, the erasure of seeing the other, of knowing, of feeling, of being with the other. And when that's removed, then politics can become genocidal.”  – James Orbinski on Rwanda

In April, 1994, a quarter of a million Tutsi women were raped in Rwanda by members of the Hutu militia. These women were raped individually, gang raped, raped publically in front of their families, raped with sharp objects such as sharpened sticks, used as sexual slaves, and sexually mutilated. This rape was strategic and used to exterminate the Tutsi people by attacking their women, at the heart of society. This rape transcends the sexual satisfaction of the attacker. This rape was a tool of genocide.

The term rape refers to any act of sexual intercourse that is forced upon an individual by physical force or duress. Historically, rape has occurred both in peace and during war; however, there has been a recent shift in wartime rape from an act to satisfy troops to a strategic method of damaging and eliminating an ethnic group.  The Rwanda Genocide in 1994 was the first case in which the term rape has been legally recognized as a method of genocide. Mass rape clearly adheres to genocide which can be seen in the specific context of Rwanda as a strategic and severe perpetration of violence against women as a pervasive tool of genocide.

Sexual violence and rape have a long historical context both during times of war and peace which is important to understand while establishing a basis for rape as a form of genocide. Susan Brownmiller, in her book Against Our Will, discusses the lack of psychological history associated with the act of rape. Neither Freud of Krafft-Ebbing who studied sexual disorders discussed rape in their works. Similarly, socialist theoreticians such as Marx and Engels neglected to include rape in their studies of exploitation between the classes. Brownmiller writes that feminists have been left with the task of examining rape in its historical context and understanding the exploitation of female bodies by men. She imagines what it might have been like for the first prehistoric woman who was raped and suggests that rape is an inevitable discovery by man. She writes, “Man’s structural capacity to rape woman’s corresponding vulnerability is as basic to the physiology of both our sexes as the act of sex itself (13).” She correlates rape and sexual domination as a way for prehistoric man to subjugate woman and to assert their power. “Man’s discovery that his genitalia could serve as a weapon to generate fear must rank as one of the most important discoveries of prehistoric times, along with the use of fire and the first crude stone axe (14).” Along with the concept of power is the psychology of male dominance which tends to supersede the common perception that rape is simply about sex. “Studies show that rape is not an aggressive manifestation of sexuality, but rather a sexual manifestation of aggression. In the perpetrator’s psyche it serves no sexual purpose but is the expression of rage, violence, and dominance over a woman. At issue is her degradation, humiliation, and submission (Seifert, 55).”

Rape during war is an unnerving reality stemming from the unique psychological situations experienced by soldiers and victims during combat. The World Health Organization (WHO) discusses a shift in gender roles during times of war in a recent report, which is important to this discussion; the report states that, "A polarization of gender roles occurs… [when] An image of masculinity is sometimes formed which encourages aggressive and misogynist behavior. On the other hand, women may be idealized as the bearers of cultural identity and their bodies perceived as ‘territory’ to be conquered" (WHO 2009).

In addition, becoming a soldier and fighting for one’s country is seen as a rite of passage and affirms the masculinity of the soldier. Rape plays into this context as a competition for masculinity in which soldiers are expected to participate. Seifert writes, "In war gratuitous atrocities to the victim were taken as a competition for greater masculinity (Seifert, 61)."

Historically, rape has been commonplace during war as a method of satisfying troops. Women were seen as spoils of war, as property which men could conquer as liberators of that land. A 1998 UN report says that rape was, “accepted as an inevitable, albeit unfortunate reality of armed conflict”. The shift from traditional wartime rape to genocidal rape is a recently established concept, identified for the first time legally during the ICTR Jean Paul Akayesu trial in 1998 following the Rwandan genocide. Akayesu was found guilty for genocide and crimes against humanity including orchestrating mass rape as a form of genocide. This was a groundbreaking trial because it laid the groundwork for identifying genocidal rape in a legal sense.

There is a definitional disparity between genocide and rape because genocide is defined as a crime against a group of individuals based on their identity within the group, while rape is an act committed against one individual. A victim of rape might feel singled out as an individual who was raped and feel entitled to restitution for this individual act. When women are raped as part of an ethnic group which is targeted, however, a new dimension emerges which might require the inclusion of rape in the definition of genocide. “If an area of accommodation, which includes both the individual and the group, can be created within the crime of genocide, then rape as genocide can operate both as a violation against the group and a violation against the individual (De Vito, 364)”.  In cases of genocidal rape such as Rwanda, so many women were raped and abused that their voices as a group may speak more passionately than a quarter of a million individual voices. They were raped because of the ethnic group they belonged to. They were targeted strategically as a method of warfare.

Regardless of the definitional complexity of reconciling the two terms, it is important to note the proliferation of media discussion and acknowledgement by international organizations of genocidal rape and concurrent sexual violence.

In 1948, in the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, the UN provided a definition for genocide. It reads, “The Convention defines genocide as any of a number of acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.” Later it added to this definition to include rape.

The UN Security Council Resolution 1820 provides a clear affirmation by the UN that sexual violence against women is a threat to peace and security and should not be tolerated internationally. It also notes, “…rape and other forms of sexual violence can constitute a war crime, a crime against humanity, or a constitutive act with respect to genocide.”

Another UN article entitled “Sexual Violence: A Tool of War” discusses rape as a direct tool of genocide and uses several compelling quotes to illuminate this distinction. Dr. Denis Mukwege Mukengere, director of Panzi hospital in Bukavu, Eastern DRC is quoted saying, “It is a tool of genocide aimed at destroying the targeted community by ensuring their women can bear no more children.” It goes on to summarize UNIFEM findings that, “Combatants routinely use mass rape, acts of sexual assault, sexual slavery, forced prostitution, and forced pregnancy as instruments of torture, ethnic domination and ethnic cleaning.”

David Scheffer in his article “Rape as Genocide” argues that rape should be included in the definition of genocide. This may find opposition due to the complexity of the terms, but he is adamant that it be included. He writes, “Hanging in the balance is whether the heinous strategy of mass rape in modern warfare will be condemned and prosecuted for what it truly is: genocide.” A key quote in this article cites a victim who affirms this rape as an attempt to wipe out her ethnic group, “’they kill our males and dilute our blood with rape. [They] want to finish us as a people and end our history.’”

Laura Smith-Spark in her article “How did Rape Become a Weapon of War” illuminates the findings of an Amnesty International report entitled “Lives Blown Apart” which focuses on the aforementioned shift from wartime rape from a form of sexual gratification for the troops to a systematic genocidal strategy. Gita Sahgal of Amnesty International is quoted as stating, “Women are seen as the reproducers and carers of the community. Therefore if one group wants to control another they often do it by impregnating women of the other community because they see it as a way of destroying the other community.”

Rape as a systematic tool of genocide proves to be very effective. Raphael Lemkin coined the term genocide from the Greek genos meaning group and the Latin –cide which means killing. He was adamant that the term genocide be used for what it represented and included the following acts as genocide. His definition includes:

  • 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;
  • Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group. (Qtd. in Power)

Rape clearly fits into each of Lemkin’s requirements for genocide.  Mass rape results in the death of many women either immediately or soon after as a result of HIV/AIDS infection.  It causes both mental and physical harm to the survivors.  Female genital mutilation and gang rapes render victims unable to bear children which stifles the next generation. Rape has the effect of diluting the ethnicity of the victim’s children which serves to damage her community.

Genocidal rape has lasting implications on the community where they take place. Rape itself is a damaging and invasive act that causes severe pain to its victims. “A violent invasion into the interior of one’s body represents the most severe attack imaginable upon the intimate self and the dignity of a human being: by any measure it is a mark of severe torture…It results in physical pain, loss of dignity, an attack on her identity, and a loss of self-determination over her own body (Seifert, 55).”  In addition to this fundamental pain experienced, it is important to understand the cultural value of women and thus the motivation of their attackers during genocidal rape. “…in many cultures a group’s system of meaning is denoted by the female gender, ‘on whose person, body, and life the construction of the community…is created and brought to completion.’ That also means the violence inflicted on women is aimed at the physical and personal integrity of a group. This in turn is particularly significant for the construction of the community. Thus the rape of the women in a community can be regarded as the symbolic rape of the body of this community (Seifert, 64).”

Women play a central role in Rwandan society as mothers and wives. They represent the foundation of new life and regeneration. Attacking them deteriorates the seams of their society in many ways. Women who were raped were shunned by their communities and rejected by their husbands. Often, they were forced to leave their homes and belongings behind because they are considered tainted and promiscuous. Children born of rape are often rejected by their mothers and society because they are of diluted ethnicity which further degrades the social fabric of the next generation. “Many children of rape were abandoned by their mothers or left for adoption. Some mothers named their children “little killers” because they were conceived by the militia who had killed their family members (Mukamana, 383).” It is estimated that approximately 5,000 children were born as a result of rape in Rwanda (Mukamana, 383).

Rwandan women also experienced a loss of identity because marriage and sex are considered a rite of passage between girlhood and womanhood. Coming of age and losing one’s virginity are celebrated with marriage. Thus, women who were raped lost their identity and could not be considered women or girls which damaged their sense of belonging in their communities further. One survivor writes, “With that rape I lost my identity as a girl. When a friend of mine invites me to a party I can’t go. . .I don’t know if when I go I have to be with the girls or with the women. I am not a girl and I am not a woman (Mukamana, 381).”

Survivors of rape in Rwanda suffer from lasting emotional and physical pain. They experience the psychological trauma of being raped as well as the physical trauma inflicted by gang rape and female genital mutilation inflicted by their attackers. Gang rapes are committed systematically, often with no emotion, and according to a social ranking.

Gang rapes are often distinguished by a ritualized procedure, that is, the order of the rape is determined by the status of the men within the group. It has also been proved that rapists tend to depersonalize their victim. They hardly perceive her as a real person, and if they did not know their victim previously, they are almost never able to describe her later (Seifert, 56).

A Human Rights Watch document identifies the shocking reality of mutilation, “Rapes were sometimes followed by sexual mutilation, including mutilation of the vagina and pelvic area with machetes, knives, sticks, boiling water, and in one case, acid.” Many Tutsi women may never be able to bear children again as a result of the damage done to their bodies, which is an ideal outcome for their attackers. Gang rapes and mutilation served as further tools of genocidal rape to ensure the annihilation of the Tutsi ethnic group.

HIV/AIDS is a problem already rampant in Africa, but as a result of mass rape, the virus has spread dramatically in Rwanda. According to an Amnesty International report, “the mass rape during 1994 contributed significantly to the spread of the virus in Rwanda, particularly as rates of HIV transmission during sexual violence are believed to be high (Marked for Death).” According to the UN, about 13.5% of the Rwandan adult population has HIV/AIDS. AVEGA, an organization working with victims of the genocidal rape in Rwanda reported in 2001 that “…70% of its 25,000 members were HIV positive…The high rate of HIV/AIDS among survivors of rape is because during the genocide, HIV was used as a weapon to destroy while inflicting maximum pain and suffering  (Mukamana, 383).” Treatment for the virus is expensive and difficult to attain. There is shame associated with being infected with HIV/AIDS and many women are afraid to come forward and receive treatment even if it is available. In addition to treatment for HIV/AIDS, survivors may need extensive therapy and reconstructive surgery which cost more than organizations such as Human Rights Watch and UNIFEM are currently equipped to support.

Rape is not a new crime. Women have long been the victims of rape during both war and peace. Despite the prevalence of rape as a crime, however, it has been largely ignored by the world as an issue worth addressing. Violence against women has not been properly documented historically for how horrifying it is, and even now is not being treated with an adequate level of concern. Smith-Spark writes, “Even after conflicts are resolved, few countries seem willing to tackle what is often seen as a crime against individual women rather than a strategy of war.” It seems that the world has put rape on the back burner as an issue too complex to deal with. The emergence of these tragic realities where groups of people subjugate women as representatives of other groups of people using rape as a strategic method of annihilation, begs the world to change its mind.

Rape has become a forgotten war crime. That is to say, until now this central cultural experience of women has been stifled, erased from cultural memory, or else placed on the inevitable margin in the form of biologism [sic] or naturalization, in the last analysis natural and historically not very important. It must be brought back to the center of the historical and political discourse (Seifert 69).

Genocidal rape has emerged as the product of a clear evolution of wartime rape from a tradition of satisfying exhausted troops, to a strategic method of warfare. The women of Rwanda who survive today are living testaments to this strategic waging of warfare on their bodies. Irreversible damage has been done to their families and their communities which will affect the future of Rwanda. Regardless of these damages these women will have to assume the task of rebuilding Rwanda, as they are the majority of individuals left standing. “The future of Rwanda is largely in the hands of its women. With a population that is 70 percent female, it will be the women who will rebuild the country. Many of these women have lived through unimaginable suffering at the hands of those who carried out the genocide" (Shattered Lives). These women must become beacons of hope and infuse the global understanding of the victim with a refusal to be defeated because the world needs to consider genocide an issue worth intervening in. The Rwandan Genocide arose from misunderstanding and political discourse. The tragedy and brutality that ensued could have been largely prevented if the world had bothered to notice and get involved. The fate of these brave women must not go unnoticed.  Awareness about this issue needs to be further raised and solutions for the survivors need to be implemented in order to aid the survival of the next generation, in Rwanda and across the world. Genocidal rape, genital mutilation and other forms of violence against women during war must be combated by the world. They are unacceptable truths which have hid in the shadows of reality for too long.


Brownmiller S. 1975. Against our Will: Men, Women, and Rape. New York: Simon and Schuster.

De Vito D. 2008. Rape as genocide: The Group/Individual schism. Human Rights Review 9(3):361-78.

"Jean-Paul Akayesu." Trial Watch. Web. 20 Oct. 2009.

Mukamana D and Brysiewicz P. 2008. The Lived Experience of Genocide Rape Survivors in Rwanda. Journal of Nursing Scholarship 40(4):379-84.

Power S. 2002. A problem from hell: America and the Age of Genocide. New York: Basic Books.

Scheffer, David. “Rape as Genocide.” The New York Times. 3 Nov. 2008. Web. 28 Sept. 2009. .

Seifert, Ruth. "War and Rape." Mass Rape: The War Against Women in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Ed. Alexandra Stiglmayer. University of Nebraska, 1994. 54-72. Print.

Smith-Spark, Laura. "How Did Rape Become a Weapon of War." BBC News. Globalpolicy.org, 8 Dec. 2004. Web. 19 Oct. 2009.

"Rwanda:"Marked for Death", Rape Survivors Living with HIV/AIDS in Rwanda| Amnesty International." Amnesty International | Working to Protect Human Rights. 2009. Web. 21 Oct. 2009. .

UN Security Council. Http://womenwarpeace.org. UNIFEM, 19 June 2008. Web. 17 Oct. 2009. .

UN. Sexual Violence: A Tool of War. Web. 19 Oct. 2009. .

United States. Human Rights Watch. SHATTERED LIVES: Sexual Violence During the Rwandan Genocide and its Aftermath. By Binaifer Nowrojee. Human Rights Watch, Sept. 1996. Web. 19 Oct. 2009. .

"Violence Against Women in Situations of Armed Conflict and Displacement." World Health Organization. Web. 21 Oct. 2009.

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