Reflecting on the battered women of Rwanda

The international community has repeatedly condemned torture as one of the most serious crimes under international law, for which perpetrators must be held accountable.

The international community has repeatedly condemned torture as one of the most serious crimes under international law, for which perpetrators must be held accountable.

On June 26th  the world celebrates the United Nations International Day in Support of Victims of Torture. Torture continues to be practiced around the world as a regular part of policing, as punishment or intimidation and as a means of repression and societal control.

Almost all women who survived the Rwandan Genocide against the Tutsi were victims of rape, and torture. An estimated 250,000 to 500,000 women and girls were raped.

According to a United Nations report, rape was the rule, its absence the exception. Sexual violence occurred everywhere, and no one was spared.

Grandmothers were raped in front of their grandchildren; girls witnessed their families being massacred before being taken as sex slaves; fathers were forced to have sex with their daughters. Many women were murdered following rape.

Many of them are currently living with HIV/AIDS and the stigma that comes along with it. Despite low income, many Rwandans find room in their hearts to adopt as many as 6 orphaned children, treating every child like their own, a mantra of the country and its President, Paul Kagame.

Rwandan women over the years have shown their ability to triumph over every obstacle. They survived the Genocide, were left as widows, and had to give birth to children as a result of rape and had to deal with being infected with HIV just to make matters even more desperate.

Because of Rwandan women’s courage and willingness to speak out, for the first time in history, rape is now being prosecuted as a war crime.

Niyogisubizo Annette (not real name) is not a Genocide survivor; to her neighbours she is the happily married housewife and mother.  But her torture story is very common and very unfortunate.

“It is not easy to be a house wife. Every day that passes you wish darkness might never fall, I wish someone would knock at my door bearing bad news”, she said, narrating her story.  Niyogisubizo is a battered wife like so many out there.

 To add insult to injury, she can never report this abuse because it would be her word against a church elder- her husband.
Every evening she wishes someone would come home with the bad news that her husband has had a terrible accident and is no more.

Humiliation in front of your children, physical abuse and verbal insults are also torture. Annette is trapped. She knows that if she reports this to the authorities, her husband would be jailed but since he is the bread winner, it means her and her children would go hungry as a result of her action.

So she opted to suffer for the rest of her life. This is the vexing problem. Many battered women put up with abuse and then return to their victimizers because they do not have a way out.

Niyogisubizo story is one of the most common stories around.  These battered women are the primary victims of this torture. But the secondary victims are their children. Boys who witness their mothers being battered are more likely to commit acts of violence themselves.

Girls who observe domestic violence are more likely to tolerate abusive partners as adults, thus subjecting another generation to the same sad dynamics.

This is not a case of the poor. It happens to the rich as well.  Specioza Kazibwe, Uganda’s former Vice-President, serving from 1994 until 2003, said that she had been forced to throw her engineer husband out of their house (which she had built) after being battered for too long. She decided enough was enough.

She is a good example; let us say that ‘enough is enough’.

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