Coalition for Women's Human Rights in Conflict Situations

Women Accused of Genocide in Rwanda

By Nicole Hogg, in Rwanda

Much has been written about the suffering of women during the Rwandan genocide, particularly as victims of sexual violence. Yet, despite the recent conviction of two Rwandan nuns in Belgium for genocide, little analysis has been undertaken to date of women as participants in the genocide, 1 or as non-participants, as the case may be. 2 Hence, as part of a Master's degree at McGill University, I travelled to Rwanda, via Arusha, to study, and meet, women charged with genocide.

In Arusha, at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, the trial of Pauline Nyiramasuhuko, former Minister of Women's and Family Affairs and the only woman indicted by the Tribunal, began in June this year. It will be very interesting to follow this trial and see how gender comes into play, particularly as one of the allegations against Nyiramasuhuko is that she incited the rape of Tutsi women, including by her own son (and co-accused).

According to official statistics, there are currently 3,105 women in prison in Rwanda, representing 3.4% of the total prison population. 3 The vast majority of these women are charged with genocide-related crimes (as against common crimes), ranging from Category 1 offences (for being among the primary planners, instigators and most notorious killers of the genocide), 4 to murder (either with their own hands, or, more often, as accomplices, in particular, by exposing the hiding places of Tutsis), to looting and destroying property. Six women charged with genocide have received the death penalty, of whom one had her sentence reduced to life imprisonment on appeal, and one has been executed.

Many female prisoners in Rwanda, like male prisoners, have been detained for over six years without trial. Many women who were imprisoned shortly after the genocide claim to have been severely beaten, both by survivors of the genocide and by the Rwandan authorities. However, among the women I met in the prisons, there were no complaints of such treatment in recent years. Rather, their main grievances are: overcrowding and a consequent high rate of illness (these problems appear to be particularly acute in the Kigali Central prison); inadequate food (prisoners usually receive one meal per day, of peas or maize), lack of visitors (prisoners are officially permitted visits of three minutes per week but many receive no visitors at all, due primarily to poverty, which prevents their families from traveling to the prisons), and delays in getting their cases to trial. Another significant concern of female prisoners is the status of their children, both within, and outside prison. 5

The confession rate among female prisoners charged with genocide is very low and most women I have met claim to be innocent. 6 (In fact, of the trials to date in the Rwandan Courts, the acquittal rate for women is 40%, which is substantially higher than the average overall acquittal rate of 20%. 7 ) From among the women who have confessed, I have heard some gruelling tales. These include: a woman who maliciously beat an old woman to death (admissions of such intentional behaviour have, however, been rare); a woman who poisoned and killed her own children to prevent them being massacred; a (Hutu) woman, kept as a sex slave by the head of the local Interahamwe (militia), and several women who claim to have killed, or to have led people to be killed, in fear for their life or in order to save others.

Whatever one thinks of women who committed crimes during the Rwandan genocide, it is unfortunate that few mechanisms currently exist in Rwanda to enable reconciliation between remorseful offenders (male or female) and their victims or their victims' families, when both parties are willing. There is much hope, among women detainees and the Rwandan population in general, that the commencement of the gacaca' trials (a traditional justice system, whereby defendants will be tried by respected persons in their communities, rather than by the courts) early next year may provide the first step towards such truth and reconciliation in Rwanda.


1    To my knowledge, African Rights is the only organization that has studied women participants in the Rwandan genocide. Their book, Rwanda: Not So Innocent: When Women Become Killers, which was researched and written shortly after the genocide, provides a very interesting overview of the ways in which women participated in the genocide, as well as detailed testimony against certain alleged women offenders.

2    As Western feminist criminologists have noted, in order to gain a complete picture of women's criminality, it is just as important to understand women's non-participation in crime (particularly violent crime), as it is to understand the types of crimes that women commit, and their motivations for doing so. Although one must be careful in employing such analyses with respect to women's participation in the Rwandan genocide, I have found that some parallels can be made.

3    According to statistics provided by the Rwandan Ministry of the Interior, as at April 2001, there were a total of 92,541 prisoners in Rwanda, of whom 3,105 were women and girls. In addition, according to the human rights organization Liprodhor, at least 10,000 people, including women, remain detained in cachots', (police cells, government offices etc.) that accommodate the overflow from the prisons. According to the women I interviewed in prison, conditions are generally worse in the cachots than in the prisons.

4   Including Nyiramasuhuko and the two nuns tried in Belgium, there are 50 women, of a total of almost 3,000 people, charged with Category 1 offences in Rwanda (that is, 1.7%).

5    As with orphan survivors of the genocide, many children who have either one or both parents in prison are left unsupported. In each of the prisons that I have visited to date, there are some children, who may remain with their mothers until the age of two to three years, after which they must be given up to family members or to NGOs.

6    According to the women prisoners I met who have confessed to genocide, the main reason why more women have not confessed is that they have not yet seen any benefits flowing to others who have done so (by way of faster trials or sentence reductions). Another important reason is that in most cases, women who did not murder with their own hands do not consider they have committed genocide, despite the fact that legally, accomplices to genocide can be treated in the same manner as the person who wielded the machete. Finally, some women report pressure from other prisoners not to confess, in the name of prisoner solidarity. African Rights has also noted that women are more ashamed of admitting to violent crimes than men, as it breaches gender expectations and may lead to ostracism from their communities. See African Rights, Confessing to Genocide (June 2000).

7    I have not yet concluded whether the relatively high acquittal rate for women is due to women's greater innocence; the nature of women's crimes, which makes them more difficult to prove; a general resistance among judges and witnesses to convict women, or other reasons altogether. Moreover, even a person officially acquitted' may be ordered to provide restitution for property looted or destroyed during the genocide. Therefore, further work must be undertaken to examine how many women who are acquitted', are in fact, convicted' of property offences.

Certainly, advances have been made in recognizing women’s rights. The legal framework is increasingly responsive to the experiences of women and girls in conflict, especially in cases of sexual violence, as we have seen in the important work being carried out by the international criminal tribunals. But there remains much to be done, particularly to improve prevention and to combat impunity.

-- Kofi Annan
October 28, 2002