A Study in Violence: Examining Rape in the 1994 Rwandan Genocide

By Violet K. Dixon
2009, Vol. 1 No. 12 | pg. 1/3 |

“The was a collective act. What made it possible, what made that final political possible was the absence, the erasure of seeing the other, of knowing, of feeling, of being with the other. And when that's removed, then can become genocidal.” –James Orbinski on Rwanda

In April, 1994, a quarter of a million Tutsi women were raped in by members of the Hutu militia. These women were raped individually, gang raped, raped publically in front of their families, raped with sharp objects such as sharpened sticks, used as sexual slaves, and sexually mutilated. This was strategic and used to exterminate the Tutsi people by attacking their women, at the he of society. This rape transcends the sexual satisfaction of the attacker. This rape was a tool of genocide.

The term rape refers to any act of sexual intercourse that is forced upon an individual by physical force or duress. Historically, rape has occurred both in peace and during war; however, there has been a recent shift in wartime rape from an act to satisfy troops to a strategic method of damaging and eliminating an ethnic group.  The Rwanda Genocide in 1994 was the first case in which the term rape has been legally recognized as a method of genocide. Mass rape clearly adheres to genocide which can be seen in the specific context of Rwanda as a strategic and severe perpetration of against women as a pervasive tool of genocide.

Sexual violence and rape have a long historical context both during times of war and peace which is important to understand while establishing a basis for rape as a form of genocide. Susan Brownmiller, in her book Against Our Will, discusses the lack of psychological history associated with the act of rape. Neither Freud of Krafft-Ebbing who studied sexual disorders discussed rape in their works. Similarly, socialist theoreticians such as Marx and Engels neglected to include rape in their studies of exploitation between the classes. Brownmiller writes that feminists have been left with the task of examining rape in its historical context and understanding the exploitation of female bodies by men. She imagines what it might have been like for the first prehistoric woman who was raped and suggests that rape is an inevitable discovery by man. She writes, “Man’s structural capacity to rape woman’s corresponding vulnerability is as basic to the physiology of both our sexes as the act of sex itself (13).” She correlates rape and sexual domination as a way for prehistoric man to subjugate woman and to assert their power. “Man’s discovery that his genitalia could serve as a weapon to generate fear must rank as one of the most important discoveries of prehistoric times, along with the use of fire and the first crude stone axe (14).” Along with the concept of power is the psychology of male dominance which tends to supersede the common perception that rape is simply about sex. “Studies show that rape is not an aggressive manifestation of , but rather a sexual manifestation of aggression. In the perpetrator’s psyche it serves no sexual purpose but is the expression of rage, violence, and dominance over a woman. At issue is her degradation, humiliation, and submission (Seifert, 55).”

Rape during war is an unnerving reality stemming from the unique psychological situations experienced by soldiers and victims during combat. The World Health Organization (WHO) discusses a shift in gender roles during times of war in a recent report, which is important to this discussion; the report states that, "A polarization of gender roles occurs… [when] An image of masculinity is sometimes formed which encourages aggressive and misogynist behavior. On the other hand, women may be idealized as the bearers of cultural identity and their bodies perceived as ‘territory’ to be conquered" (WHO 2009).

In addition, becoming a soldier and fighting for one’s country is seen as a rite of passage and affirms the masculinity of the soldier. Rape plays into this context as a competition for masculinity in which soldiers are expected to participate. Seifert writes, "In war gratuitous atrocities to the victim were taken as a competition for greater masculinity (Seifert, 61)."

Historically, rape has been commonplace during war as a method of satisfying troops. Women were seen as spoils of war, as property which men could conquer as liberators of that land. A 1998 UN report says that rape was, “accepted as an inevitable, albeit unfortunate reality of armed conflict”. The shift from traditional wartime rape to genocidal rape is a recently established concept, identified for the first time legally during the ICTR Jean Paul Akayesu trial in 1998 following the Rwandan genocide. Akayesu was found guilty for genocide and crimes against humanity including orchestrating mass rape as a form of genocide. This was a groundbreaking trial because it laid the groundwork for identifying genocidal rape in a legal sense.

There is a definitional disparity between genocide and rape because genocide is defined as a crime against a group of individuals based on their identity within the group, while rape is an act committed against one individual. A victim of rape might feel singled out as an individual who was raped and feel entitled to restitution for this individual act. When women are raped as part of an ethnic group which is targeted, however, a new dimension emerges which might require the inclusion of rape in the definition of genocide. “If an area of accommodation, which includes both the individual and the group, can be created within the crime of genocide, then rape as genocide can operate both as a violation against the group and a violation against the individual (De Vito, 364)”.  In cases of genocidal rape such as Rwanda, so many women were raped and abused that their voices as a group may speak more passionately than a quarter of a million individual voices. They were raped because of the ethnic group they belonged to. They were targeted strategically as a method of warfare.

Regardless of the definitional complexity of reconciling the two terms, it is important to note the proliferation of media discussion and acknowledgement by international organizations of genocidal rape and concurrent sexual violence.

In 1948, in the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, the UN provided a definition for genocide. It reads, “The Convention defines genocide as any of a number of acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.” Later it added to this definition to include rape.

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