#16Days: Post-genocide Rwanda poses obstacles to women’s psychological health and well-being

By Christine Izere, student at the University of Ottawa, currently interning with the Women Peace and Security Network – Canada.

Twenty-three years ago my mother fled Rwanda in hopes of finding refuge elsewhere. Nothing could have prepared her for the psychological scars that she would face in the years to come. However, she is considered the lucky one, who had the privilege of resettling in Canada and the ability to build a new life.

The genocide in Rwanda was the culmination of a century of ethnic discrimination. Neighbours murdered neighbours; family members murdered family members. “Hutu extremists used sexual violence towards Tutsi women and girls systematically as a method of war, not only to inflict pain and humiliation but also to spread HIV and thus ensure the end of the Tutsi people.” 1 In the span of 100 days approximately one million Rwandan men, women and children were killed and over a million were displaced in neighbouring countries.

Post-genocide Rwanda is characterized by strict government policies aimed at rebuilding Rwanda through the means of reconciling both victims and perpetrators. Hence reconciliation is often initiated by the state as opposed to the victims of the genocide. Consequently “many survivors are coerced into living in close proximity with the perpetrators of the violence while still dealing with psychological scars from the genocide”2. For many survivors still confronted with the memories of pain, loss and despair their psychological health and wellbeing is often disregarded in an attempt to build a more unified Rwanda.

As we commemorate December 9th, the dignity for genocide survivors, it is imperative to question government initiatives aimed at reconciliation. Although it offers a way in which a country can begin the processes of healing it fails to address the survivors psychological overall wellbeing. Schimmel finds that “survivors are trapped in the fears prompted by their experiences, sadness, pain, and the wounds that cannot heal because justice is so incomplete”.3 Due to strict state policies on reconciliation thousands of the perpetrators of the genocide are freed leaving survivors feeling vulnerable and despondent that justice is not and will not be done.

There is a dire need to grant genocide survivors asylum status if they wish to relocate on the basis of psychological well being. Perhaps one of the most psychologically damaging aspects of being forced to live alongside perpetrators is the need to repress one’s own feelings in order to minimize the chance that perpetrators will try to harm you.4 I recently asked my mom if she would ever consider relocating back home, and she simply said it isn’t her home anymore. It is a shame that her family is forced to deal with the pressure of reconciliation whilst still dealing with the wounds from the past.

Christine Izere, is a student at the University of Ottawa, currently in her final year of International development and Globalization. She has an interest in Women Peace and Security issues around the world.

1. Brounéus, Karen. “Truth-Telling as Talking Cure? Insecurity and Retraumatization in the Rwandan Gacaca Courts.” Security Dialogue 39, no. 1 (2008): 55-76.

2. Hatzfield, Jean. (2009.) The Antelope’s Strategy: Living in Rwanda After the Genocide. (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.)

3. Schimmel, Noam. “The Moral Case for Restorative Justice as a Corollary of the Responsibility to Protect: A Rwandan Case Study of the Insufficiency of Impact of Retributive Justice on the Rights and Well-Being of Genocide Survivors.” Journal of Human Rights 11, no. 2 (2012): 161-88.

4. Ibid

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