By Ignace Nikwivuze
Social Connectedness Fellow 2018
2019 will mark the 25th anniversary of the Rwandan Genocide committed against the Tutsi by Hutu extremists. The genocide took away the lives of almost one million people and left thousands of orphans and traumatized widows in only a span of 100 days. After the Genocide, it was deemed necessary for the government and the people of Rwanda to rebuild, reconstruct and restore the country’s social and economic infrastructure, decimated by the impact of the catastrophic event.
Among the many consequences and legacies of the Genocide are children born of rape. Sexual violence was a critical step in the process of exterminating the entire Tutsi ethnicity. Often, women were killed immediately after being raped, not to mention that HIV-positive men contaminated victims as a strategy to eliminate a new generation of Tutsi children.
Children born of rape in Rwanda during the genocide
The children born of rape in Rwanda as a direct consequence of the genocide are estimated to be around 20,000. As of 2018, they represent 0.17% of the Rwandan population (11,901,484), and 0,87% of the population between the ages of 15-24 (2,301,585).
It is particularly important to be acquainted with the bitter reality that these children have found themselves in the middle of mixed identities. In fact, “they are confused about who they are, angry and struggling to make sense of their new personal and social identity, which carry stigma and shame”. Many of the children born of rape are not even aware of their origins. “Their mothers, too ashamed and traumatized to speak about the past, often lied and said the fathers had either died or fled the country”, when the children ask them. According to the SURF survivor fund, which supports 819 Rwandan women who gave birth due to rape, only 50 have revealed the truth to the children.
In the Rwandan context, ethnicity is usually passed down from the father’s line, which means that theoretically, these children are Hutus. Due to this mixed identity, in many instances, these children are left isolated. They are stigmatized and rejected by both parties – by the Hutu for having Tutsi mothers who often testify against their fathers and put them in jail, and by Tutsi families for having genocidaire fathers.
It is equally important to understand that it is not only the mothers who struggle to accept the realities; these children are as well reminded of their past every day, be it through seeing their mother’s trauma or through rejection by some of the community members.
To me, this is an absolute form of social isolation as neither the parents nor the children are at ease, and both are hunted down by the legacies of the past in which they are not responsible for, by any measure.
Government assistance towards children born of rape during the Genocide
Rwanda’s constitution adopted in 2003 (amended in 2015) is founded on the values of human dignity and the advancement of human rights, and undoubtedly guarantees equal protection to everyone. However, unlike their mothers, these young individuals don’t qualify for the government assistance for survivors, Fund for Support to Genocide Survivors (FARG), and as a result, most of them live in poverty.
Article 1 of the law, which established the fund, states that it concerns “support and assistance to the survivors of the Genocide who were alive and affected by the Genocide between 1st October 1990 and December 31st, 1994,” yet most, if not all, of these children were born after this date. Aid programs tend to address the challenges of the raped women, paying little attention to those of the children.
How should we support and care for these children’s future?
Loneliness and isolation are a major threat to a person’s health – personal loneliness increases the risk of death by 26% and “lacking meaningful social connections and living alone were found to be even more devastating to a person’s health than feeling lonely, respectively increasing mortality risk by 29% and 32%”. These children need to be identified, counselled and integrated into the Rwandan larger community. Rwanda must have a major outreach program in order to find them as many might not be seeking help because they are ashamed of their identity. Community-based discussions about their struggles would also help in breaking the silence and enhancing progressive discussions about the socially constructed misfit in the community.
Equally, the government should encourage media to air messages and publications designed to educate the public and alter negative perceptions about these children. Currently, local media remain almost silent about the presence and support offered to these children.
Independent non-profit-organizations such as the Survivors Fund (SURF), and Hope and Peace Foundation (HPF), among others, continue to take a lead in supporting these children by either paying their school fees and/or covering their medical expenses. These organizations also encourage them to express their feelings and follow their dreams regardless of their painful past.
I encourage readers to take action by joining hands with SURF in an effort to support the children born of rape in Rwanda. Read more about their work here: https://survivors- fund.org.uk/tag/children-born-