Of two devils: Gender abuse at the height of ethnic discrimination

Fighting for women empowerment, in my opinion, boils down to fighting for dignity. When for all your worth, you are reduced to being just a woman, a tool for reproduction, sex, and to a larger subtle extent, an enslaved being that has to succumb to the demands of culture and society. This couldn’t have been more emphasised when during a reality comic show in the more advanced world, three out of five comedians made very sexist jokes that surprisingly seemed acceptable by everyone.

More surprising was that the comedians did not seem aware of how patronising they sounded, as they rode the self-esteem of women to its lowest. It is appalling how the very beauty and grace that is accrued to a woman is the same thing that makes her so belittled by society. We end up humbled to the extent of accepting ridicule as the way of life and without realising it, enforcing it down the throat of every female in the name of cultural and societal values. If this can happen under normal circumstances, it is not surprising that d
uring strife and war, women become the most vulnerable as tools of war, a kind of human loot that if chanced upon, is plundered at will.

Sounds hard, doesn’t it? But so is reality. I happened to be part of a support group that helped women get off the streets. They already had this ‘I don’t care what you think’ attitude that shrugs off the pain of being dejected as a sex worker; overly loud and aggressive if pushed. As part of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi commemoration, they were taken to visit the Genocide memorial site. Not much research had been done on their past. As they approached the women section, one of them backed off, obviously traumatised and had to be rushed up for counselling. It turned out she had been a victim of multiple rape during the Genocide, consequently suffering back trauma and contracting HIV/AIDS. Having lost her husband and most of her family to the Genocide, she opened a small bar to support herself and children. For increased revenue, she resorted to sex work with some of her clients. She had lost all sense of dignity and cared less what people thought. No one knew her real story of survival. She always clam
med up when asked. But that is the case with many of the female survivors of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi. At the height of ethnic discrimination came the worst of devils in the form of gender abuse; two stories too hard to recount.

A news feature by UNICEF in 1996 describes how sexual violence was used as a weapon of war in war-torn areas around the world including Bosnia, Herzegovina, Peru, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Cyprus, Haiti, Liberia, Somalia, Uganda and our own Rwanda.

Sexual violation of women erodes the fabric of a community in a way that few weapons can. Rape’s damage can be devastating because of the strong communal reaction to the violation and pain stamped on entire families. The harm inflicted in such cases on a woman by a rapist is an attack on her family and culture, as in many societies women are viewed as repositories of a community’s cultural and spiritual values.

While we commemorate the 24th anniversary of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, we remember the survivors of the Genocide and the horrors they went through, most especially our fellow women. It is an inconceivable healing process that they go through each day to recoup their dignity, and they require all the support they can during this time.

As we ponder over such atrocities, solutions are hard to come by. The question is, if women at all levels of society were well-empowered, would it reduce the likelihood of them getting targeted as weapons of war?

According to the World Bank, Empowerment is the process of increasing the capacity of individuals or groups to make choices and to transform those choices into desired actions and outcomes…a move from ‘I can’t’ to ‘I can’.

An article by Tadzie Madzima-Bosha in Peace Direct in 2013 brings out an important point: Women are seen as victims of conflict that need to be protected and kept safe rather than agents of change for peace. Because of such views and sentiments, the elimination of violence against women in conflict prone areas continues to pose challenges.

She goes further to assert that instead, women should play the bigger role in curbing violence for themselves and their families, and should at all costs be actively included in all the formal aspects of peace processes that would allow them to stand up for their rights. Unfortunately, women continue to be absent from major peace processes.

Being an empowered woman during armed conflict may not necessarily be by physical prowess, as by having the confidence and dignity to say enough is enough. The story of how the Liberian women, through mass action, brought an end to conflict in 2003 is an inspiring case to consider. Not only were they fighting for peace in their country, they fought to protect their sons and husbands from getting embroiled in the unnecessary war.  The act of moving en mass forced the fighting parties to come to an agreement and up to now, this movement is still highly respected in Liberia.

Recently, women in Rwanda stood up en mass to protest against a pastor that preached spitefully against women, and brought him to book. This kind of empowerment minimises the impunity with which communities and leadership may downplay the importance of the woman in the community.

As we reflect on the terrible outcomes of the Genocide, the best reward we can give to the survivors, especially women, is to stand tall in the face of strife with dignity; to work towards an empowerment that enables women to stand fearless in the face of fear, disrespect and belittlement and demand for what is right. Whilst in Rwanda we are blessed with a supportive leadership, women empowerment at various levels is still an uphill task that we must continue working at. Never Again, Rwanda.


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