Violence has affected nearly every aspect of the lives of women in Rwanda. The 1994 genocide killed 800,000 people and resulted in the rape of at least 500,000 women. Amidst massive upheaval, including the spillover of the conflict into the Democratic Republic of the Congo, some women became combatants. In general, social values defining women as distinctly second- class citizens have turned families and communities into places where the risk of gender violence is high.
Despite enormous recovery challenges, women in Rwanda have impressed the world with their leadership of reconciliation efforts and initiatives to build a society where terrible violations of women’s rights no longer occur. One group, the Forum for Activists against Torture (FACT), has used a UN Trust Fund grant to work with women ex-combatants on raising awareness about women’s human rights and the devastating impacts of gender violence, including high rates of HIV/AIDS among women.
The ex-combatants all have had first-hand experiences as both perpetrators and victims of violence. Initially, 20 women gathered in Kigali, the capital, from each of Rwanda’s 12 provinces. They shared their own experiences, studied international human rights principles, discussed the impacts of sexual violence on reproductive health, and learned ways to manage trauma.
The training was designed to equip participants with the skills to hold sessions on similar issues for other ex-combatants, who, in a ripple effect, could then serve as advocates in their own communities. Subsequent provincial sessions managed by the 20 women involved the 400 members of Ndabaga, an advocacy group comprising former women fighters from different sides. Simultaneously, FACT and Ndabaga collaborated on two radio programmes, aired on a leading national station that disseminated information on women’s rights to the general public.
Today, as a result of the project, a core group of women community leaders has a demonstrated capacity to work with other women and men on issues critical to improving women’s status in Rwanda. Some of the trainees have gone on to form local women’s groups and human rights clubs, or have become involved with other organizations supporting women victims of violence. Other participants are helping local women seek out counseling and legal recourse against perpetrators of violence. A few have become trainers at the Demobilization and Reintegration Commission, where they contribute essential perspectives on women’s rights and needs.
FACT reports an increased number of calls to its hotline related to gender violence, and a higher number of cases reported to the police. As an organization, it has built on the knowledge gained from the project for new initiatives to provide education on gender-based violence in schools, and to monitor human rights violations related to gender-based violence and torture in Rwandan prisons. Additional funding for these activities came from Cordaid and ICCO Netherlands, respectively. FACT plans in the future to focus on concerted advocacy for stronger policies and legal reforms, having learned from the ex-combatants project that stopping violence requires involvement on all levels.
For their part, trainees in the ex-combatants project have identified what they feel are pressing current needs. They have called for education for men so they learn to change their attitudes and violent behaviours. They have stressed that women across Rwanda need information about existing laws and services, so that whenever violence is real or threatened, they have the knowledge to protect themselves.
Forum for Activists Against Torture (FACT) received a grant in 2004 from the UN Trust Fund to End Violence against Women for the project titled, “Sensitization of Women Ex-Combatants on SGBV, HIV/AIDS and its Consequences on Reproductive Health”. (Story reprinted from A Life Free of Violence Is Our Right! The UN Trust Fund to End Violence Against Women.)
(Story Date: 8 March 2007)