Is Rwandan culture perpetuating sexual harassment?

Incidents involving sexual harassment have recently been trending on social media especially Twitter. Victims were calling out their assaulters for their shameless acts; however, their actions (of speaking out) have attracted mixed reactions.

Some responses were those of solace and support whereas others held tendencies of victim-blaming, questioning their role in their abuse and accusing them of putting themselves in positions of assault.

Sexual harassment encompasses behaviour characterised by the making of unwelcome and inappropriate sexual remarks or physical advances in a workplace or other professional or social situations.

It is important to note that that rape culture in Rwanda thrives on social expectations and silence.

Silence is a culture that we have been conditioned to be part of. It’s vital to understand how diverse cultural expectations like silence can shape people’s experiences of violence, says Bonitah Kobusingye, a feminist.

She highlights that in Rwanda, there’s a strong value placed on ‘not sharing a lot’.

“Silence and concealment are accepted when dealing with violence. We emphasise that the best moral thing to do is to ‘avoid making a fuss/too much of a situation’ we, therefore, suppress our emotions at the expense of meeting these expectations.”

Information from Isange One-Stop centre shows that this year (from January to August), only 12 cases of sexual assault have been reported.

But depending on how widespread this issue is, the indicated statistics show that it’s only a few victims who report these cases.

Because the vice has continued to prevail even in the midst of the various campaigns to prevent it, some are presenting arguments that the system of patriarchy which is deep-rooted in the Rwandan culture is one of the factors perpetuating this.

Ange Ashimwe, a gender activist believes that sexual harassment is systemic and the only way to change it is to change the system.

Sexual harassment is not something that just happens because of circumstances or desires. It is invited by an imbalance in power, and how society previews that power, she says.

Men hold far more positions of power in all quarters – even in female-dominated spheres; men are more likely to be the director or the administrators, she adds.

“Society hasn’t regarded sexual harassment as a serious problem yet and most of the time, they blame the victim for being assaulted or even make it a joke.”

Ashimwe believes that sexual harassment is fuelled, mostly by wrong narratives, myths, and standards about women, and the perspective of masculinity by the society that portrays women’s bodies to exist entirely for men and for women to be weak and submissive to men.

She says society regards men as superior beings. “These toxic beliefs not only fuel rampant sexual harassment and gender-based violence but also nourish abusive and toxic cultures that silence women.”

She points out the issue of denial noting that, for one to think that sexual harassment and gender-based violence does not happen in or that it has been fixed in some societies, is another dominant toxic narrative that provides fertile ground for sexual harassment to happen.

“Most reporting systems do not work because the victims are required to report sexual harassment and gender-based violence through a strict chain of posts that often includes perpetrators or the allies. This effectively silences victims.”

Ashimwe is also of the view that solutions must be targeted and aimed at changing the culture, systems, and structures.

Ignoring complaints and failing to recognise gender-based assault as it creates toxic cultures that normalise harassment, she says.

“It is sad. When it comes to rape, the society we live in still finds ways to blame women for being assaulted by saying things like “She was drunk, she was wearing revealing clothes, and that she was asking for it.” Nobody ever asks to be assaulted or worse sexually assaulted.

This is just empty reasoning to defend perpetrators and blame the victims.”

Clement Kirenga a gender activist and programme manager at the Swedish Embassy in Rwanda, doubts whether there are adequate written strategies, written internal rules (the case of workplaces) on anti-sexual harassment.

He believes that in the presence of such for example in each media house, it would be of great help. These written strategies need to be owned, be clear, easy to implement and follow-up on monitoring and evaluation systems with clear and SMART (specific, measurable, accepted, realistic, time-bound) indicators to assess performance, he says.

For sexual harassment to be tackled firmly, Kirenga believes leaders have to show commitment to implementing the strategies above and if not respected, sanctions that are in the law should be applied though punishment sometimes doesn’t correct a person but makes them worse.

On the side of prevention, negative cultural practices (rhetoric and actions) that encourage domination of women, stereotyping and all patriarchal tendencies have to be avoided beginning with men reflecting on their privileges at workplaces.

Men and women should not tolerate these negative masculine behaviours, he says.

“And of course if it is assessed and concluded that all these are caused by limited awareness, more awareness actions could help, therefore, for example, using especially simplified messages on social media, training especially on ‘positive masculinity’ and dangers of a patriarchal system against women’s rights.”

Influence of western culture

Onesphore Ruhumuriza, a historian says the mindset of believing that the Rwandan culture could be perpetuating sexual harassment indicates that people have lost acquaintance with their culture.

He explains that in the Rwandan culture, girls talk with their mothers and aunties or other relatives, and this is done as a way of seeking direction.

The Rwandan culture is matriarchal. Men respect women, a ‘yes’ is a ‘yes’ and a ‘no’ is a ‘no.’ Gender-based violence is mostly as a result of a society losing touch with its roots, you find that families don’t converse anymore, men don’t mind if they have families, he says.

Ruhumuriza says, we need to restore our culture, women need to command their rightful places accompanied by respect.

If parents talk to their children, in case of any problem, it is easier for them to open up where necessary. The conversation is our culture; those with immoral behaviours will finally reform because they know that those they intend on assaulting have where to report to.

“Let us, as Rwandans, be human. Let us uphold our culture, let us not be silent about sexual harassment because if we do, it will always prevail.”

Col Jeannot Ruhunga, the Secretary-General of Rwanda Investigation Bureau (RIB) says fighting gender-based violence is a process.

He cites that for this immoral act to stop, it is more about Rwandans denouncing and standing up to fight against it.

He is also certain that though violence against women still prevails, there is hope for it to be stopped because the leadership has no tolerance for it.

“It all goes down to family, society. It’s not that justice is not doing enough, it’s the mindset to change. With the present campaigns, much will be done about this for the leadership has strong strategies in place to stop this,” he says.

Col Ruhunga cites some challenges hindering this fight noting that at times it is hard getting evidence and that also, some people minimise sexual harassment yet it is something affecting society.

“This is why a change in mindset will help a lot, but we are also determined to punish anyone committing these crimes without fear or favour.”

“Going ahead, more campaigns will be carried out, we will also be firm with the law because we will also be punishing accomplices,” he adds.

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