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07. May 2020

A better plan than war and hate – Women after the genocide in Rwanda

A genocide tore Rwanda apart 26 years ago. One million people died and at least 250,000 women were raped. How does a society deal with something as terrible as this? Our partner organisation SEVOTA recognised the risks associated with looking away and refusing to talk about it. Instead they developed services which offer women and their children a positive outlook for the future.

The first finger represents the suffering. The second finger represents the crisis, the third anger, and the fourth and fifth fingers stand for stress and low self-esteem respectively. The women touch each finger on their hand in turn. "Use your fingers when you are talking about these feelings," advises Augusta Mukasengoga, one of the psychologists present. This little trick can help the women to ‘grasp’ their feelings and accept them as real, in turn making it easier to speak about them. In time, the feelings will then subside.

Women's forums: Therapy, empowerment and exchange

Some 80 women have assembled in the space provided by the women's organisation SEVOTA. They come together every one or two months in order to share and talk about their worries. These "women's forums" follow a tried and tested schedule. The first sessions have a more therapeutic character and these are then followed by sessions which aim to empower the women and encourage them to show solidarity with each other.

When Godelieve Mukasarasi set up SEVOTA in December 1994, she had no local role models providing similar services. Her society was shaken to the core. According to estimates, 250,000 to 500,000 women had been raped. Thousands of children were born out of these rapes. Excluded by their communities, these children also gave rise to difficult feelings in their mothers. Vivien, one of the survivors, expresses this clearly: "At the beginning it was very difficult for me to accept my daughter. After all, she was the child of the man who murdered my whole family!"

"This is now my family"– Community despite sexualised violence

Vivien was 16 years old, an orphan and pregnant by rape, as she came to SEVOTA in December 1994. It felt good to be in the company of the other women there. "At first we just cried and cried, Afterwards we would feel a bit better."

The women's forums are much more than just a meeting of women with similar life stories. They are part of a better plan for the future than the torn society of 1994. Even in peacetime, rapes frequently lead to a feeling of isolation, And in wartime, soldiers rape deliberately in order to destroy communities. Vivien reports: "My sister still judges me today for giving birth to my child, and she broke off all contact to me." For Vivien, SEVOTA took over an essential role: "This is now my family."

Consequences of war – Impacts into the next generation

SEVOTA is deliberately focusing on long-term approaches, since traumatic experiences can have an effect for a very long time, often into the next generation. The women provide support for each other and with time they learn to accept the past and start looking to the future again. Vivien also managed to take this important step. She can now accept herself and her past, telling us: "I have come a long way, but my path is not yet finished. I will keep developing myself!" Today she can accept and love her daughter, who takes part in SEVOTA youth clubs, which give her strength for her own life.

The staff at SEVOTA are also looking to the future. They are planning to buy a property in order to expand their offers. In addition to courses for women and youth, their idea is to have a shop selling products made by the women's groups and a centre documenting the rapes committed during the war.

medica mondiale has been supporting SEVOTA since 2008, providing funding and expertise in trauma therapy.

Related topics

Youth Forum in Rwanda: "We, the youth, we have the power!"

Rwanda: "Children of the Enemy"