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Widows and community based transitional justice in post genocide Rwanda.


The objective of this contribution is to explore justice in post genocide Rwanda, the role of community-based organisations and the support they provide to widows of the conflict. The article will begin by outlining a brief overview of the nature of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide and the consequences of the conflict for women. Specific attention will be paid to the experiences and challenges that have widows faced since the genocide ended. Widows represent a particular group facing gender-specific challenges in the wake of the death of their husbands. These include having to assume roles and responsibilities which were previously undertaken by the men in the family. In the Rwandan context, many widows experienced sexual violence during the conflict and therefore had to deal with its impact, the consequences of the war and the added pressure of taking charge of new tasks that would not have previously been expected of their gender role. In the aftermath of political violence, transitional justice mechanisms are utilised to respond to what happened during the conflict in order to aid the transition to a stable and peaceful future (Teitel, 2000). The field will be outlined and the mechanisms that were created to deal with the Rwandan situation, the International Criminal Tribunal of Rwanda (ICTR) and Gacaca, will be discussed and critically analysed in order to illustrate the short falls of each. The article will go on to consider the findings from empirical research that was conducted with community-based projects that were supported by AVEGA AGAHOZO (1), a women's charity that was established to support widows and orphans in the aftermath of the genocide. It presents findings from research conducted in Rwanda during two field trips, of four weeks in June 2007 and six weeks in June- July 2008, which will be used to illustrate what community-based organisations can achieve in the aftermath of conflict.

The Rwandan genocide and its aftermath for widows

The 1994 Rwandan Genocide claimed the lives of an estimated 500,000 (Desforges, 1999) to one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus (Gourevitch, 1998). During the three-month conflict, it has been estimated that somewhere between 250,000 and 450,000 women were raped (Baines, 2003). Rape was used as a weapon of war and a means of genocide. It was used systematically to instil fear, enforce pregnancy, attack the woman and her community, and infect victims with HIV (African Rights, 1995a; Human Rights Watch (2), 1996; Sharlach, 2000; Baines, 2003; Amnesty International, 2004; African Rights, 2004). Gender mitigated individual experiences of the genocide (3) and it will be used as a focus in examining the aftermath of the conflict. A focus on gender is not to suggest that other determining contexts are unimportant. Clearly, ethnicity, social class (4), age and geographical location all influenced the lived experiences of the 1994 conflict (HRW, 1999). Just as they did during the conflict, women experienced specific, gender-related difficulties in the wake of the war. Gendered, differential experience of conflict is not unique to Rwanda. Such differences exist during conflict historically, currently and during times of so-called 'peace' (MacKinnon, 1993). Women in Rwanda were less likely to be killed during the conflict. Consequently, seventy per cent of the population was female in the immediate aftermath of the genocide (Women for Women International, 2004). Although their lives may have been spared, women were more likely to be targeted with rape and/or sexual violence than death (HRW, 1996). For many, being raped was akin to being killed. Evidence suggests that soldiers responsible for carrying out rapes were ordered to do so due to their HIV positive status (ibid). Raping a woman with the objective of transmitting HIV was designed to ensure that the victim would die a protracted death (Nowrojee, 2005). Surviving also meant that women had to cope with the loss of loved ones including, in many cases, memories of seeing their loved ones being killed (HRW, 1996).

The gender-specific experiences during the conflict were followed by gender-specific challenges in the wake of the violence. A key social challenge facing widows was that Rwandan social mores dictate that women should not remarry; this was suggested as a reason why women found it more difficult to 'move on' after the genocide. Widows faced tasks which previously would have been carried out by their husbands. Women who had been raped or subjected to sexual violence during the genocide frequently experienced stigma, discrimination and, in many cases, were ostracised from their community (HRW, 1996; Baines, 2003; Nowrojee, 2005). This further compounded women's experiences of the genocide itself.

What is justice in the aftermath of conflict?

Transitional justice is a body of knowledge and activism which explores the ways in which societies emerging from mass human rights violations deal with the past whilst attempting to move forward to a peaceful society (Teitel, 2000). Ensuring there is a balance between dealing with what has happened and attempts to move forward is, Duthie (2008) suggests, key to their success. Nagy (2008, p276) argues that the field has become a permanent element in responding to human rights violations discourse and it is no longer the case of 'whether something should be done...but how it should be done'. Transitional justice recognises what can be achieved in the aftermath of human rights violations from both judicial, such as court proceedings, and non-judicial mechanisms, such as truth commissions (5) and reparations (Wolfson, 2005). The complex nature of a society emerging from violence and terror results in the need for, usually, more than one mechanism of transitional justice being used to enable a peaceful transition and promote reconciliation. In many cases, this has resulted in a number of different mechanisms being adopted in order to respond to the different needs of a society. Broadly, transitional justice mechanisms are established to fulfil key objectives in order to enable a society to make a successful transition, these include: rule of law, security, accountability, and democratisation (Minow, 1998). Clark's (2008a) version of the intended outcomes includes reconciliation, peace, justice, healing, forgiveness, and truth. Boraine (2006, p18) stresses that to be most effective, transitional justice should:
   ...offer a deeper, richer and broader vision of justice which seeks
   to ... address the needs of victims and assist in the start of a
   process of reconciliation and transformation.

As has been illustrated by Bell and O'Rourke (2007), Ni Aolain and Rooney (2007), Rooney (2007) and Reilly (2007), transitional justice needs to have a feminist perspective which is cognisant of gendered experiences during and after conflict. From a feminist perspective, transitional justice should assert that transitional periods should be utilised to improve the social standing and treatment of women. Transitions present opportunities to challenge patriarchal structures and the discrimination and marginalisation they underpin (6) and create change for women (Manchanda, 2001). Perhaps this is an unintentional consequence of conflict but, nevertheless, the chance emerges to improve the lives and rights of women. Although women are frequently represented as victims of conflict, in accordance with 'appropriate' standards of femininity, they are agentic subjects and often seize the opportunity and become involved with aspects of life they would have once been excluded from (UNDP, 2002).

Victim-centred perspectives

When understanding transitional justice it is important to consider the impact it has on the lived experiences of those during and in the aftermath of conflict or political unrest. A survivor may have concerns both around holding human rights violators to account and gaining access to clean drinking water. Poverty may be directly or indirectly a consequence of conflict or oppression, therefore responding to it should be part of the transitional justice package. Victim-centred research, whereby the people directly affected by conflict have been asked what they need, has illustrated that peace and security is preferred over justice (Vinck and Pham, 2009). These were closely followed by financial assistance, housing, food and water, and access to education. Failure to address such needs can cause problems for the implementation of transitional justice. If an individual does not feel secure enough to go to a market place for fear of seeing perpetrators, it is not reasonable to expect an individual to feel sufficiently safe enough to disclose their experiences of conflict to a court or truth commission (ibid). Similarly, if a person does not have a reasonable standard of life then typical transitional justice issues are unlikely to be priorities.

It is important to understand that transitional justice mechanisms do not take place in isolation; they reflect to a greater or lesser extent the nation's on-going development. They form a part of a society's process for dealing with the consequences of conflict and human rights abuses. The same society or community may also have to address consequences of the conflict that transitional justice mechanisms have not always been designed to deal with. Kaldor et al. (2006) discuss how conflicts impact on the social structures and institutions, which mean that poverty, homelessness, access to healthcare provisions, access to education, and other human needs require attention. These ongoing, indirect effects of war were experienced by survivors in Rwanda. These are concerns outlined by Mary Kayetsi-Blewitt (2006, p319), who describes how survivors 'feel that their survival is its own form of torture'. Those who were spared or fled death during the genocide struggle to survive in the aftermath. Amongst the other challenges faced by women, Women for Women International (2004) estimated that sixty-one per cent of women in Rwanda live in poverty. This illustrates that transitional justice mechanisms must be designed in a way which ensures that they should achieve what is necessary to the community in which they have been implemented. There is no blue print or template for transitional justice mechanisms; rather, they must cater for the specific needs of the community. In Rwanda, widows needed to be able to provide for themselves in the absence of their husbands.

Transitional justice in post genocide Rwanda

International justice for Rwanda

In the months following the genocide, the international community placed a significant emphasis on the role of international justice and its potential to achieve justice for the people of Rwanda. Some argue that this was an expression of guilt caused by not responding to or even acknowledging the fact that genocide was taking place (Melvern, 2000; Desforges and Longman, 2004). Nevertheless, a year earlier, the United Nations had established an international tribunal (7) to investigate crimes perpetrated by state officials during the Balkans crisis (Barria and Roper, 2005). This set precedence and, on the 8 November 1994, the UN Security Council adopted resolution 855, which created the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (8) (De Than and Shorts, 2003). For the people of Rwanda, the purpose of the ICTR was to hold accountable and punish those involved at the highest level of the genocide, in an attempt to aid peace and reconciliation (ioid).

The ICTR has experienced a range of problems throughout its existence. These include operational problems, such as initial issues in setting up suitable offices with electricity, and accessing resources, such as stationery and other office materials, in Rwanda (Mose, 2005). It has also been criticised in terms of the expense (9) and the slow pace of the court proceedings (ibid) (10). Initially, the court was heralded for its recognition of rape as a tactic of genocide in the landmark prosecution of Jean Paul Akayesu (Askin, 2005). Unfortunately, since this case, it appears that the ICTR, like national justice systems around the world, appear to be unwilling to efficiently investigate and prosecute sexual violence (Nowrojee, 2005). It is perhaps unsurprising that there is a pattern of ineffectiveness when it comes to holding perpetrators of sexual violence accountable during so-called 'peace' and conflict. This, combined with the slow pace of the tribunal, has resulted in many of the women who were raped during the genocide dying of the AIDS they contracted and not seeing the orchestrators of the conflict brought to justice (ibid). A key objective of the ICTR was to aid peace and reconciliation in Rwanda. The decision to house the court in Arusha, Tanzania was an obstacle that prevented Rwandan people from feeling part of the process. Burnett (2008, p174) notes how Rwandans felt 'marginalised' from the proceedings, particularly prior to the ICTR funding information broadcasts on radio in the late 1990s and early 2000s. My findings suggest that this sense of marginalisation continues to be a problem. When participants were asked about the court they knew very little; during one interview it was as though the table had turned, as the participants asked me a number of questions about the court and its progress. The impact it has had on the grassroots of Rwanda is questionable when the people that the justice was intended for know so little about it.


In the days and months following the genocide, the transitional government adopted a policy of arresting and imprisoning anyone who was thought to have been involved with the genocide (Amnesty International, 2002). By 1997, the prison population of Rwanda stood at 124,000, even though there was only capacity to hold 18,000. The overcrowding and poor conditions resulted in 11,000 deaths between the end of the genocide and 2001 (ibid). With a damaged and weakened justice system, the Rwandan government estimated that it would take more than a century to try all the inmates (ibid). After a period of consultation, the government decided to employ Gacaca, a pre-colonial method of conflict resolution, which would be adapted and given powers to prosecute genocidaire (11) (Clark, 2008b). Gacaca is characterised by its participatory nature, as it requires all members of the local community to hear cases and contribute to the proceedings (ibid). Gacaca encompasses judicial, as some courts have the jurisprudence to imprison genocidaire, and non-judicial elements, such as truth recovery and the opportunity to seek forgiveness from victims or the families of victims, of transitional justice (ibid). Depending on the level of involvement, those who stand trial at Gacaca can be sentenced for up to 25 years, although some have the option to serve half their sentence in community service projects. These projects include maintenance of public spaces and buildings, and the maintenance of school and hospitals (Amnesty International, 2002).

The Gacaca courts have received mixed reviews. Megwalu and Loizides' (2010) research into public perceptions of the courts found that 74.4 per cent of their 227 non-representative sample thought Gacaca was doing a good job, with only 6 per cent disagreeing. A positive outcome of the courts has been that they have allowed some survivors to establish how and where their loved ones were killed. This has enabled them to give their loved ones a 'dignified burial', I was told by several widows. However, Burnet (2008, p187) discovered evidence of individuals settling personal grudges by making false accusations at the court; one reason why the proceedings have been said to have had a 'destabilizing effect' on the community. This paper will now present findings from community-based organisations and argue that these should be understood as part of the lexicon of non-judicial approaches to transitional justice.

The role of community-based approaches

The Rwandan Genocide is infamous for the way in which individuals were killed by people they knew and had previously lived peacefully alongside, even married or attended school with (Gourevitch, 1998). This resulted in a lack of trust and absence of a social network in the wake of the violence. In the aftermath of the conflict, women were not, in fact, 'passive' or 'powerless'. They helped establish community-based organisations to support each other in their recovery from the genocide. These organisations were tasked with dealing with the range of problems at different levels that women faced, including social, emotional, economic, political and medical. The role of community-based organisations in delivering support strategies for women in the wake of violence will now be considered. This will be explored in relation to the part that such organisations can also play in achieving transitional justice objectives. It is argued that community-based organisations can be responsible for promoting, delivering and achieving the goals of transitional justice at the local level. This is significant as community-based, bottom-up approaches, those which are founded, organised and implemented by members at the grass roots of society allowing the community to take ownership over such processes, can promote agency (Lundy and McGovern, 2008). This stands in contrast to top-down processes like the ICTR and, arguably, Gacaca, whereby the state is in control of the process and procedures of initiatives. Community-based organisations can be described as bottom-up approaches as they prioritise the needs and requirements of the communities in which the projects are taking place. As McEvoy (2008) argues, in the aftermath of violence, the needs of individuals and communities should be prioritised. As has been established, women are victimised in gender-specific ways during conflict, however, this does not mean that their agency is diminished in the aftermath of conflict (Smet, 2009). It is widely acknowledged that gender inequalities impact women's access to aid during peace and in the aftermath of conflict (Bouta et al., 2005). In the Rwandan context, the gendered inequalities that existed prior to the genocide became exacerbated during the genocide and in its aftermath. Thus, it can be argued that when establishing and supporting community organisations, the role and significance of gender must be taken into consideration to inform policy and practice.

Community-based organisations promoting transitional justice and development in Rwanda

In this part of the article I will explore the empirical findings from my doctoral research into women's relationship to justice on the aftermath of the Rwandan Genocide. Initially, the project was to focus on the ICTR and Gacaca. However, after spending time with women's groups in Rwanda, it became apparent that these modes of transitional justice were not having as significant an impact on survivors as the community-based projects I am about to explore. Informed by the key principle of feminist methodology to represent women's experiences from their perspective (DeVault, 1996), I endeavoured to explore these projects in more detail. For the purpose of this article I will draw on data from interviews and follow-up interviews conducted with representatives from AVEGA and a group interview with four beneficiaries. The women were aged between 40 and 50. The interview lasted for 68 minutes and took place at the AVEGA offices in Eastern Rwanda. It was conducted in Kinyarwanda and translated by a member of staff. The women were members of a cooperative, which translated to English as 'working together' (12). The group was made up of 21 widows, of whom 10 were HIV positive as a result of the genocide. Prior to the interview, I met the women and they showed me around the banana plantation (13) project that they were involved with, which was a short distance from the location of the interview. The beneficiaries were selected to take part in the research for convenience reasons; they were already close by to the AVEGA offices and therefore did not need to go out of their way to take part in the interview. As with all research projects, there are some issues in terms of the representativeness of the findings. The project I will draw on is a successful one. The same sentiments may not be expressed by a project not doing so well. Nor are these findings representative of all widows. However, based on the data collected from representatives from women's NGOs, the problems experienced by widows were common due to the gender-specific problems widowhood resulted in. Therefore, these findings illuminate a case of best practice and potentially a model that could be utilised in other post-conflict settings as part of the response to the challenges of widowhood.

The widows were supported by AVEGA, which was founded in 1995 by 50 widows of the genocide. The main objectives of AVEGA include: providing holistic support for widows and orphans of the genocide; promoting solidarity between members; remembering the victims of the genocide; and playing a role in the reconciliation of the country. In order to achieve these objectives they run various schemes, including: distributing anti-retroviral drugs, counselling, training, education, and income-generating activities. As AVEGA was established and is coordinated by survivors of the genocide, it can be understood as a grassroots or bottom-up organisation (Lundy and McGovern, 2008). The members of staff that work for AVEGA are from the same communities affected by the genocide. Thus, they see and understand the problems survivors face and aim to provide them with the capacity to provide practical solutions to their problems. The AVEGA ethos is guided by the belief that practical schemes which encourage local participation can achieve long-term and sustainable results.

The women turned to AVEGA for support in the aftermath of the genocide. As the women all live in the same Sector and had shared similar experiences of the genocide, AVEGA encouraged them to form an association. One of the women said she became involved with the association '[t]o overcome her problems: the consequences of the genocide'. They were encouraged to share their experiences and discuss their problems with other members of the group in an attempt to reduce trauma. Associations were created to provide widows with a support network, initially on an emotional and social level but, later, also financially. Widows recognised that they shared common problems and, by working together, they began to find common solutions. In order to relieve their families of their post genocidal extreme poverty, widows began working together. Among the many important schemes organised and supported by AVEGA are income-generating projects (IGPs). IGPs provide beneficiaries with the capacity to earn their own income with the long-term goal of independence. This is a positive and empowering experience for widows and allows them to move forward and 'fills them with hope', as I was told by one beneficiary. AVEGA supports a range of IGP, including: agricultural activities, livestock keeping and trade, and the making and selling of crafts. Not only do they provide assistance relating to the project, they offer support and training around money management. This is crucial as, prior to the conflict, although women would earn money, largely through agricultural work, it was usually controlled by their husbands or fathers. Thus, I was told that, women lacked the skills they needed to manage their money and survive. Such projects are designed to tackle the gender-specific consequences and challenges that widows faced in the aftermath of the genocide, particularly providing support to women to enable them to take responsibilities which would have previously been their husbands. AVEGA approached the association and asked them if they would like to farm some land in the local area. The members agreed, and as they were now working together on a financial enterprise they became a cooperative. This meant that they had to consider the organisation of the group and elect members to formal roles such as President, Vice President and Treasurer; again, levels of responsibility which they would have been excluded from previously. The association had been saving money and these funds allowed the group to buy some of the tools and materials they needed, with AVEGA paying for the rest. This project was financially successful and the women made the equivalent of 900 pounds sterling in their first harvest. This has increased year on year from 2003 to 2008. The money raised was used to pay wages and expand and improve the business. The women were working on average, 20 days a month (14) which earned them the equivalent of 10 pounds sterling a month.

Renee (15), the President of the group, talked of her role in the cooperative:
   I am proud of the members of the group. They have confidence in me
   to elect me to be their leader and now I am proud of that
   confidence. Secondly, I found in me the quality of leadership. The
   third thing is that I helped the members from one level to the next

For many women, being a part of the cooperative had changed their life:
   Firstly, I am very happy, as after the genocide I was very
   traumatised. Being in and among the group my trauma diminished.
   Before I was alone, in the group I found friends that are now like
   the relatives that I lost. In the project I earn money and the money
   helps me to buy my [clothes] dress and respond to basic needs at
   home. And the killers who killed my relatives wouldn' t [won't]
   find me begging. This is very important. Jenny

   The project allowed us to have money to respond to the problems at
   home that needed money, for example, buying school materials for our
   children, buying soap and responding to the basic needs at home. So
   for me it has been a big support in front of the families of those
   who killed our relatives, our husbands and our children...even if
   our husbands died, we are able to find solutions to the problems
   at home and we don't go on the road and begging. Renee

The above quotes demonstrate that cooperatives can achieve some of the aims of transitional justice. The women's work gives them a sense of achievement and confidence in their own ability. They have discovered that they have the ability to lead (16). They experience happiness and reduced trauma due to the support they find from a new social network. They gain an income and the capacity to provide for the needs of their families. They report freedom from humiliation, as they do not have to beg, and a sense of security. The women described how being in a member of the cooperative repaired the harms that they suffered during the genocide: trauma, isolation, poverty, happiness and loss of husbands and the services they would have provided, such as money.

The women were asked about their views on reconciliation. They said that being involved with the cooperative made it more possible to reconcile. Defining and labelling reconciliation is difficult and highly contested, and having an indicator to demonstrate what reconciliation constitutes is even more difficult. When the women told me that they had proof of their desire and capacity to reconcile I was somewhat confused; the cooperative of 21 widows, some of whom were HIV+ as a result of the genocide, employs people in their community to help with the upkeep of the banana project and some of the people they employ are relatives of those who killed their relatives. Paid employment in rural parts of Rwanda is uncommon; most villagers work only on their families land or livestock. Providing employment reflects their sense of security and willingness to reconcile.

Discussion and conclusion

Community-based projects fulfil some of AVEGA's key objectives: encouraging members to be self-reliant through capacity-building projects and promoting reconciliation. Providing the community with the space and opportunity to communicate, negotiate and make their own decisions are skills that are essential for a peaceful Rwanda. Such skills also serve the purpose of creating new trust bonds and forming new relationships, which were destroyed during the genocide. Working in a cooperative has provided communities with the ability to generate their own income, which gives them autonomy, so they do not have to rely on aid agencies for help. The work of AVEGA would not typically be understood as a form of post-conflict community justice. However, the findings indicate that there is scope for such initiatives to be understood as an example of non-judicial community justice.

Although such projects can have a positive impact on the lives of those involved, their main limitation is due to lack of funds and resources, which prevent them from being scaled-up, and therefore reach only a relatively small number of people (Uvin, 2010). This raises significant questions about the decisions that are made in terms of how resources and funds are distributed in the aftermath of conflict. These choices must be informed by evidence and money should be prioritised for projects that are both efficient and effective. If schemes such as those discussed in this article can fulfil the objectives of transitional justice, then they should be deemed more effective than those which have a limited impact. Thus, a holistic approach must be adopted to ensure that societies recovering from political violence and mass human rights violations are dealt with in an effective manner.


The author would like to thank the two anonymous reviewers, Howard Davis, Chris Hoyles and Clare Kinsella for their comments on earlier versions of this paper. I am also very grateful to Alana Barton and Mark McGovern for their ongoing support of this project. Special thanks to the women who participated in my research and the kind staff at AVEGA.


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(1) Association of the Widows and Orphans of Rwanda, referred to as AVEGA from here in.

(2) HRW from herein.

(3) It is important to acknowledge that women acted as perpetrators as well as victims of violence during the genocide (see African Rights, 1995b). See, for example, the case of Pauline Nyiramasuhuko, who was convicted by the ICTR in June 2011.

(4) Desforges(1999) has described the differences between Hutu and Tutsi as more akin to social class than ethnicity.

(5) The most famous is the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, created to uncover the truths of the apartheid regime and foster reconciliation after its demise (Minow, 1998).

(6) This reflects women's experiences of conflict when structural inequalities are exacerbated.

(7) Known as the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

(8) The mandate of the international criminal tribunal was to prosecute 'persons responsible for the genocide and other serious violations of international humanitarian law committed in the territory of Rwanda and Rwandan citizens responsible for genocide and other such violations committed in the territory of neighbouring states between 1st January 1994 and 31st December 1994' (ICTR, 2011).

(9) The budget for 2010-11alone is [pound sterling]138,688,758 (ICTR, 2011).

(10) To date, only 69 cases have been completed.

(11) The term genocidaire has been adopted by the Rwandan language to describe those who committed genocide.

(12) In order to protect the identity of the participants the name of the cooperative will not be provided, the nature of their work has been disguised and they are referred to by pseudonym only.

(13) See previous footnote.

(14) The women had other jobs, typically working on family land or in the agricultural sector.

(15) Names have been changed to protect the identity of the women.

(16) Leadership of any form was exclusively a male responsibility
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Author:Tobin, Angela
Publication:British Journal of Community Justice
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:6RWAN
Date:Mar 22, 2012
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