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10. March 2004

Alison DesForges

Alison des Forges - Rwanda: Women in Power?

March 2003

Shortly after the visit of Connie Bwiza Sekamana, the US-historian and Rwanda connoisseur Alison des Forges came to Vienna upon an invitation from the Karl Renner Institute to accept the Bruno Kreisky Award for the Political Book 2003 for her lifetime achievement: the documentation of the genocide in Rwanda. In the following interview with Edit Schlaffer/Women without Borders, she paints a carefully optimistic, but all in all critical picture of the new Rwanda, where the hopeful slogan "Women hold up half the sky" has received real meaning. We will hopefully not only be sympathetic on-lookers of this process. Women without Borders will try to support the women of Rwanda in their brave undertaking.

Edit Schlaffer/Women without Borders talked with Alison des Forges, historian, senior advisor of the African division of Human Rights Watch (HRW) and author of "Leave none to tell the story: Genocide in Rwanda". By order of HRW she traveled more than 20 times to Burundi and Rwanda doing field research. 2003 she received the Bruno Kreisky Award for the political book.

WwB: We would really like to know more about how this process of female inclusion of women into the political structure of their countr, Rwanda, started. One of the explanations we often hear is that so many men were killed during the genocide and now the majority of the population are women...

AF: Actually, that's not accurate; the percentage of the female population is only slightly larger than the male. It's something like 59 or 57%. If you look at the RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Front) as a political movement before the genocide, it owed its roots to the 1970s guerilla tradition - connections to Mozambique, to Uganda, and so on and so forth. So, at the time when the RPF was organized in Uganda, it already gave a great deal of importance to women as a guerilla movement.

WwB: Women in a combat position are still an exception. This phenomenon seemed to attribute to the increase of the status of the Rwandese women.

AF: Yes, absolutely. There were women who were in very important positions on various levels. For example, the one who more than anyone else was responsible for raising money, making the whole thing possible was a woman. Aloisea Inyumba was, I believe, the financial brains behind the operation. She later was the head of the Unity and Reconciliation Commission and was very close to Paul presiden Kagame for a long a time, and then she became the governor of Kigali-Rural.

WwB: So, you had women who were playing important roles even during the war situation?

AF: Yes, and one thing that was interesting: the RPF has been, of course, accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity for killing civilians, but the rare cases when they raped women were severely punished.
One reason people have explained this is the role that women play in a combat situation. For example, if some of your troops are women the problem of rape is certainly going to be less.

WwB: The safeguarding of female participation in politics was more or less party line. Were the women ready for that process?

AF: There had been in the previous government an attempt to organize women and to incorporate them into the political structure through a women's association, but it was strictly associated with the political party. It was the women's wing of the political party. So there was that tradition which existed inside Rwanda, there was the RPF tradition of women in important roles and it seems to have more or less come together here. And the government has chosen to give a great deal of importance to women.
The very first elections, not the ones last year, but previously, there were elections at the communal level and the local government level and a certain number of seats in every district were reserved for women but a lot of the candidates who filled those seats were men. It's very disappointing because the women did not come forward.

WwB: What were the reasons?

AF: I don't know, if it was a continuing cultural reserve that kept women from being willing to do this or whether it was manipulation. It's clear that the substantial number of places for women were taken by men who said they were representing the interests of women.
But that was not the case with the legislative elections and those seats that were designated for women are held by women. But it's also true that some other women's organizations have now become very much committed to government policy; so, instead of acting as independent non-government organizations, they're in fact acting as the voice of the government.
So, it's a complex situation, but you do have a grassroots level. Women are taking the initiative more and more and that's what's particularly encouraging and interesting to see.

WwB: Could you give an example?

AF: I remember going to a Gacaca session (regional courts under the direction of community leaders, where victims, accused people and testimonials bring out there positions; after in-depth discussion the community leaders are pronouncing a judgment) where a woman was the president, she was running the session, and it was so obvious that this was a new role for her. When she stood up to address the crowd, she stood up the way a Rwandan school child stands when called upon to recite by the teacher, with one hand behind her back, you could see, she had not been before the public since the time she was in school. And now here, she was, taking that posture, but having the importance of being the president of Gacaca - that is quite extraordinary.

WwB: Has the recognition of women on the political level changed their actual living conditions?

AF: It has changed slowly obviously. And we see that particularly in questions of inheritance and property, because officially women can inherit but they are frequently deprived of property by male relatives and either do not themselves dare appeal to the courts or if they do appeal to the courts, they are not getting satisfaction.

WwB: The Human Rights Watch Report on Sexual Violence during the Rwandan Genocide "Shattered Lives" documents that women were subjected to sexual violence on a massive scale. Gender-based violence has not been an issue in the International Criminal Tribunal.

AF: There has been almost no prosecution for rape, and we just had a mission in Rwanda looking at that particular question and why that is. It's very disappointing because everyone recognizes that rape was a major part of the genocide but the male authorities and most of the judicial authorities are men and have no interest. So it's a very mixed situation but it's one where there is considerably more initiative being shown by women than ever before.

WwB: Silence is a kind of conspiracy; we have to listen, to learn and try to understand.

AF: Whether you're talking about Hutu girls whose fathers have been imprisoned or you're talking about genocide survivors or whether you're talking about young people who grew up in a refugee camp, they all have endured life circumstances that are so remarkable. We must listen to them - how could you not respond to something like this?
I think a lot must be done to support these young women.

WwB: Is aid delivered in a way that it actually reaches the victims?

AF: Sad to say a number of people in the elite of whatever kind - Hutu, Tutsi, it doesn't matter - are very focused on personal gain. And so that a substantial part of aid delivered to the country doesn't get to the needy. And if you look at the capital city, it is flourishing, it is beautiful, it is rich and people are astonished to go there but very few people go ten miles out of town.
The problem is how to deliver aid in a way that it actually reaches the victims, and for that, it's needed to get to know your partners and finding who you can trust.

WwB: Fighting corruption is a major concern in the context of development. The big question is: how?

AF: One way is that the donor countries need to be more rigorous in seeing what happens to their money. Many of them prefer not to know because it's easier for their bureaucratic lives not to know what's happening.

WwB: How would you describe the specific role of women as peacemakers?

AF: There is one wonderful example of a woman's cooperative in Rwanda that was formed by genocide widows - Tutsi women whose Tutsi husbands had been killed. And they began a flower mill to try and raise some money for school fees. And after some time, they allowed their sisters in law to join, who were Hutus who had been married to Tutsi me. And then, when those women were integrated into the organization, after a while, they said: "But we have our own sisters, other Hutu women who are widows or whose husbands are in jail, whose children have nothing to eat, who have no medicine. Can't they join us?"
And they did.

WwB: That's an extraordinary example and a practice of reconciliation.

AF: But it's not general unfortunately. It's a practice of reconciliation driven by economic necessity but where people very pragmatically say we have the same problems and if we get together the solution will be easier for all of us.

WwB: There were reports recently that large numbers have been released from the prisons now and that the killers are not brought to justice, so people don't feel it has been a satisfactory process.

AF: It's a complicated issue. Originally, there were about 100,000 in jail. Last year, the government released 24,000 who had confessed supposedly, and now they're going to release another 30,000 I think. From the point of view of the survivors, this is not justice. In principle, they're only provisionally released; they're supposed to come to trial, but I think the chance of that happening is very little and even if it happens, looking at this hierarchical political system, the chance that a local group of foreigners is going to send someone back to jail, who was already released by a presidential decree is virtually zero.
So I think that's why the survivors say there is no justice. What people often don't realize is that many Hutus say this is a bad idea because of the innocence and the guilt of individual people is unestablished. Then, only some Hutus are condemned and punished, and the others are left to enjoy their innocence.
So the blockage in the justice situation is very serious for everyone, and I think eventually the government will give an amnesty.

WwB: Do you think that is a good idea?

AF: No, I don't, because I think it's not just for the survivors and not just for the vast majority of the Hutu but from the point of the government, it serves their interest. The whole justice thing is too complicated, it's too expensive, and they don't really care. Most of them are not genocide survivors, that is, the real people who are making the decisions, and they just want it to go away.

WwB: You mentioned an example of forced killings in a hospital in the country -the medical staff being divided into the two groups of Hutus and Tutsis. The militia ordered the Hutu doctors to kill their Tutsi counterparts, and when they refused they killed 3 Hutus, and the killing started.

AF: I mean the Hutus really hated Tutsi. The Tutsi had been a ruling elite. They had not ruled in a kind way. It was an oppressive system and it was made worse by the arrival of the colonial power, not because the Europeans wanted to divide their rule but because the Tutsi wanted to take advantage of the European power to extend their control over Hutu who had resisted them. So it was a very symbiotic relationship where the Europeans used the Tutsi and the Tutsi used the Europeans. And the end result was that the Hutu, in the last two decades before independence, were very much an oppressed group. And the result was that there was a lot of resentment of Tutsi and one of the themes that the Hutu "power people" played on in their propaganda was the Tutsi coming back to restore their rule: "they're going to take away land, they're going to make you their slaves, you'll be beaten the way you were before" and so on. And that was a very powerful piece of propaganda and it galvanized a lot of people.
So there were certainly willing killers but it was not everyone. People were not actually forced; they were under severe duress to participate. I had a colleague who was at the university and for a long time I didn't know what his behavior had been during the genocide and I finally found out. It was his child one day, when we were talking together, it was his child who said "papa went to the barrier everyday" and I looked to my friend and I said "this is what you were doing."
And he said "yes", because there were seven children from his wife's side of the family, his wife was Tutsi. Seven children whom he was protecting in his house and people had identified him as someone friendly to Tutsi, obviously, because he had a Tutsi wife. They had attacked his house twice, he was shot at and he said they didn't find the children the first two times. "I was afraid they would if they came a third time, and kill them so I had to show that I was on their side so they wouldn't come back and the way I did it, everyday I took my chair, and I took my book and I sat and I read. I never touched a weapon, I never checked an ID card. I just sat there and read my book." Now how do you weigh the responsibility and what he did to the system, just by his prestige, being one of the 50 people in the country who is a faculty and he goes and he contributes just by sitting there but yet seven children are alive because he did it.

WwB: Who are we to judge?
I would like to come back to the issue of rape. It surprises me that the women did not achieve more taking into account the number of women representatives, that the whole issue of rape is not taken seriously. That's something that really distresses me because when we push for women in power we want to see some change especially in these areas.

AF: Well, regionally, under Rwandan law, rape was punished by a maximum of 7 years of prison and when the first law of genocide was written, they divided the crimes into 4 categories of seriousness and rape was put in category 2, not category 1. Rape with sexual torture was put in category 1 but simple rape was put in category 2, and then they began doing a plea bargaining system where they asked people to confess, and as a result, their sentences were reduced by half. And they got a substantial number of confessions to rape. Then half a year later, they began the Gacaca system, and in the Gacaca law they changed the categorization system and made it a category 1: punishable by death- and the result was that no one confessed to rape after that.

WwB: Why would they do that?

AF: It's an important decision to make. You have to decide what best serves the interest of punishing rape and deterring future rapists. It is a draconian punishment with no chance of confession. The point is the decision was made by men without ever consulting the ministry for gender. And I went to the secretary of the minister for gender and I said: are you in agreement with this because I don't think that this is the right solution. The change was made without every consulting the minister of gender.

WwB: This is an example and proves that women have to move beyond their classical positions as heads of gender units. We have to move into all of the areas where decisions are made.

AF: Of course, when you have a woman secretary of defense, and a woman secretary of treasury, you can change something.

WwB: Do you think that women have been better in reconciliation?

AF: I think so in many cases simply because they're more pragmatic about the need to go on with life, to make it possible for their children. So I think yes in that sense. Although there are some who have been spokespersons for a very bitter point of view, rejecting all points of reconciliation. There is that as well but I'd say by and large, women are more amenable to trying to find a just way of punishment.
Two weeks after the end of the genocide, I was sitting in Kigali talking to a woman who was a dear friend who had her husband and her four children killed. Her husband and youngest one were buried alive, and as we talked and she was telling me this horrible story, another woman came by, beautifully dressed, all of them immaculate and beautiful. And my friend, who was there in tatters, got up and embraced this woman; when she came back to me I said "who was that?" And she said "that was the wife of a general. I don't know what her husband did but I know she's a good woman."
So this power to differentiate is very important.

i>WwB: Have women already made a significant difference in the power structure of the country?

AF: I'm afraid it's still a military dictatorship and it's still run by men and it's run by a military force which has incorporated a substantial amount of women I believe for political ends but the point is: now that they're inside the door what will they do? Because you may let them in just because it serves your interest, but once they are inside, will they change the system. Women need to take account of their own power in the situation.

WwB: How did you get personally involved in Rwanda?

AF: Accident; coincidence. I was bored at college, at university, studying European history, so a group of us went to Tanzania as volunteers to teach, and I worked in a refugee camp with Rwandans. I was 19.
That was 49 years ago. A long time ago. I now have more experience with Rwanda than the vast majority of Rwandans because most Rwandans are younger than 15.

WwB: You lived there for some period?

AF: Yeah, at various periods. As a graduate student, with my husband. And later on as a historian, doing historical research. I lived there with my children who went to school there, down south, outside of Butori. Still a very happy memory for them.

WwB: Your work is outstanding, it speaks for itself. Thank you very much for talking to me.


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