By Ignace Nikwivuze
Social Connectedness Fellow 2018
I would like to acknowledge the bravery and resilience of the women survivors of the 1994 genocide against Tutsis and moderate Hutus in Rwanda. Ultimately during this human tragedy, nearly a million were killed and hundreds of thousands of women were victims of sexual violence. In a 2014 article in The Guardian, the author noted the horror that many women witnessed, including seeing their husbands murdered with machetes and their children thrown into latrines. Some had been “abducted, mutilated, gang-raped and infected with HIV in many cases.”
It is critical to highlight today how these women have rebuilt their lives despite this painful and devastating past. They had experienced living nightmares, often alone. The sorrow and grievance for their beloved ones, and the anger they felt towards the perpetrators constantly haunt them. These feelings of isolation and exclusion left them with little room for hope in terms of reclaiming their place in Rwandan society. After all, many experienced such isolating factors as trauma, poverty, and anxiety, while feeling less valued and neglected by their communities.
However, these women refused to give up, showing resilience throughout their fight out of the dark history of Rwanda. In 1995, during the aftermath of the Tutsi genocide, widows came together and formed AVEGA Agahozo, L’Association des Veuves du Génocide Agahozo. This organization helps them continue to survive and fight for what was left of their lives. Its 20,000-person membership includes “1,686 who are over 70 years of age, 732 who have lost their relatives, husbands and children, and have no family at all, 1,599 who are HIV positive due to sexual assault during the 1994 genocide, and 1,122 children who were born as a result of rape.” At AVEGA’s core is the motto, “unity makes strength,” and the organization believes strongly in combining efforts to resolve common challenges.
With the assistance of AVEGA Agahozo and the Rwandan government, these individuals have managed to live again, re-creating families and raising their children. As Eugenie, a genocide survivor, testifies, working with other survivors in the association serves as her own source of support, as there is strong solidarity among members with hope for better things to come. After forming their own community, these widows now better understand what happened to them and have accepted the trauma they live with everyday. Moreover, they have slowly regained their confidence in humanity, with most even going one step further by forgiving the killers of their husbands, children, and relatives.
Thanks to Avega Agahozo and the Rwanda government, women survivors are provided with support, such as a small monthly living allowance, healthcare, and medical insurance. Elderly survivors have also been housed in care homes to improve their quality of life. With more members approaching old age, the association is also challenging societal taboos in Rwanda by opening retirement homes for the many survivors who have no family and no one to look after them. However, in a country with no systems of institutional care for the elderly, traditional care for older persons often falls on other family members.
It is important to note that as the women age, their risk of social isolation and loneliness increases due to their mobility being greatly reduced. In a 2014 article in The Daily Beast the author tells the story of Niwemfite, aged 65, who “suffers from asthma, and is unable to walk much due to problems with her legs sustained in a bad beating during the war. She says she spends two weeks a month in a hospital.” Niwemfite has no family left, so the daughters of her friends come to help with household chores and she earns an income from renting another home she owns, “but she fears solitude as she ages.”
With such a large community of aging women experiencing social isolation, it is imperative that the Rwandan government and its partners take action to foster a greater sense of connectedness and inclusion. In so doing, women survivors will receive the support and sense of belonging that they need and deserve.
To learn more about AVEGA’s incredible work, visit the organization’s website. And for further information around the history of the Tutsi Genocide in Rwanda and the impact it still has today, visit SURF Survivors Fund.