Gacaca, Rwanda's traditional, community-based conflict resolution system, was used historically to adjudicate local property crimes and civil disputes. In the aftermath of the 1994 genocide, the Rwandan government revived and revised this indigenous mechanism to assign jurisdiction over some genocide crimes. While controversial because it does not adhere to international legal standards, particularly with regard to the rights of the accused, Gacaca is seen by many as an imperfect but necessary response to the challenges of post-genocide transitional justice. Conducted outdoors in more than 10,000 local jurisdictions that meet weekly for hearings, Gacaca handles thousands of cases that the regular judicial system cannot process. With an emphasis on truth telling, Gacaca is designed to establish individual accountability and promote reconciliation.
As the majority of survivors and witnesses, women's participation has been an important element of the Gacaca system. For example, although in the past women were not permitted to serve as Gacaca judges, the government has required that at least 30 per cent of the judges be female. According to one scholar, "The community basis of Gacaca allows women to participate on various levels, recognizes their role in the reconciliation process, and gives them an identity beyond that of victims."
Local and international activists have also been successful in calling attention to the pervasive use of sexual violence as a tool of genocide. While the exact numbers may never be known, it has been estimated that "almost all" girls and women who survived the genocide were either "direct victims of rape or other sexual violence, or were profoundly affected by it." The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Rwanda found that during the genocide, "rape was the rule and its absence the exception."
Recognising the brutality, frequency, and genocidal intent of these crimes, the government classified sexual violence as a Category One crime under Gacaca law, along with the other most serious violations, including planning the genocide. Concerns have been raised about whether the elevation of rape and sexual violence to Category One has improved accountability to women. Though initial testimony and evidence is collected in community Gacaca hearings, prosecution of Category One crimes takes place in the formal judicial system. Although these courts deliver official rulings and hand down more severe sentences than Gacaca courts can, they are slower moving and more difficult for victims to access, in terms of both travel time and expense. By elevating Category One crimes to the formal judicial system, their seriousness is recognised, but the local community is cut out of deliberations about sexual violence, the responsibility to protect, and accountability.
Survivors' and human rights groups have documented cases of witness intimidation across the country, and there have been reports of reprisal killings of those who testify. Social and cultural norms, as well as fear, continue to prevent women from testifying about rape and therefore from accessing justice. In Rwanda, there have not been – as there were during South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission – special all-women hearings to focus on gender-based violence. Such hearings, if they were conducted before the end of the transitional justice process, could effectively highlight the challenges of ensuring accountability.