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04 May 2016

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

They are young adults with dreams, hopes, and a difficult story. 22 years after the genocide in 1994, today there are between 2000 and 5000 young people in Rwanda who were conceived during rape. Almost all of them find it difficult to lead a proud and confident life because of this. A youth forum held over several days by our partner organisation SEVOTA offered these young people an opportunity to talk about their feelings and find solutions together for their problems.

As children of severely traumatised mothers, most of these youth grew up in an atmosphere of silence and suppression. Additionally, many were discriminated against by their village community and family, since their fathers were perceived to be ethnic murderers.

Jeanne* (21) told us about her experiences:

Before I came to the SEVOTA youth forum, I could never have imagined anyone else being able to understand my problems. I always thought I was simply a strange person who other people in my community would try to avoid. In fact I often had the feeling of being invisible or not being there at all. This was even the case at school, although I was a good student.

Coming to terms with the genocide of 1994 and sharing experiences

The theme of the forum was: "We, the youth, we have the power!" There I met other people with the same experiences as me. In the first group meeting, we read a parable about a palm tree. It suffered under the burden of a heavy rock, but was nonetheless able to flourish because of the water in its roots. Together with the staff of SEVOTA , we looked at how the parable applies to us. There are rocks in my life, too: experiences which hurt me and make me weak. For example, when other people in my village insult and curse me as being the child of a murderer. Everyone in the meeting wrote down what rocks, or burdens, they have. Then we spoke about it in the whole group. I found that difficult at first. But working in the group help me to recognise that the others have similar experiences. They can understand what happened. In fact, many youth know nothing or very little about the violence their mothers suffered during the genocide in 1994. So we could deal with this issue during the youth forum.

Raising awareness about systematic wartime rape

On the second day, we watched the film about Alen, a young man from Bosnia who was also conceived during rape. SEVOTA made it clear to us that systematic wartime rape is not unique to Rwanda. It was used during the Bosnian war and in many other conflicts across the world to humiliate and destroy the enemy. Alen wanted to know why his mother abandoned him after birth, and who his father was. I, too, have many open questions. I was able to ask some of them one afternoon in the forum when a survivor visited us: a woman who had suffered the same experience as my mother. She told us how difficult the pregnancy was for her and how her community humiliated her after the birth because she had borne the child of her rapist, an ethnic murderer. But it was still her child, so she learnt karate in order to defend it from attacks.

Advice and experiences from other survivors

She advised us: "If your mother tells you about her experiences, listen to her and try to show her some understanding. She suffered terribly and needed a lot of strength to bring you up in spite of her trauma." This encounter made it clear to me that neither I nor my mother chose the circumstances of my conception. So I no longer want to argue with her. Instead I would like to try to support her.

Dealing with emotions - strengthening commonalities

However, this confrontation with the genocide and the story of our mothers made me very angry and upset. So in the group, SEVOTA showed us how we can better deal with our sadness, fear, anger, stress or shame. We took an imaginary suitcase and packed it with things that can help or comfort us when we feel despairing. I put a radio in there because I like music and a football because I enjoy sport. On the last evening, we all unpacked our suitcases together: we listened to music, danced, sang, laughed and hung necklaces around each other's necks as a sign that we are all worthy of life and love. That was a beautiful feeling. In fact, the way we grew together as a group during the forum was very beneficial for me. Nobody was rejected or isolated. In order to continue this support for ourselves in the future, we have set up youth clubs in our home regions. That in itself does not solve my problems, but it is good to know that there are others who understand me.

medica mondiale and SEVOTA:

The Rwandan organisation SEVOTA has been working for the benefit of widows and orphans of the genocide since 2005. It provides trauma-sensitive support for women survivors and now, with its youth forums, for the first time SEVOTA is turning its attention to the children who were born out of the rapes. It wants to give them orientation and support so they can grow and become a healthy generation, in confident control of their life and shaping a peaceful future for their region and country. medica mondiale has supported SEVOTA since 2008.

* name changed