Jesuit priest: Stories of Rwandan women ‘scarred by genocide’ must be told

Father Marcel Uwineza Father Marcel Uwineza. | Credit: Sister Olga Massango/Daughters of St. Paul

Women who were sexually assaulted, infected with diseases, and forced into exile, among other brutalities during the 1994 genocide against Tutsis, remain deeply scarred three decades later, and their stories must be told, a Rwandan-born Jesuit priest has said.

According to Father Marcel Uwineza, telling the stories of the women, “who have endured deep wounds and carried heavy burdens all their lives,” gives a voice to the women who, he said, “were practically silenced by the genocide.”

In an April 14 interview with ACI Africa, CNA’s news partner in Africa, Uwineza, who serves as principal of the Nairobi-based Hekima University College, said that Rwandan women have wounds that manifest today as the country marks 30 years since the April 7–July 19, 1994, genocide against the Tutsis.

“Many women in Rwanda have had to carry with them long years of suffering because of bringing up children who were conceived through rape,” Uwineza said. “Others were infected with HIV and have had to live with the condition all their lives. Many carry scars on their bodies because of the beatings they endured. Others had to carry the burden of their families because their husbands were killed. They not only carry the wounds of history but the burden of having to tell the story of their resilience as well.”

Some of the women, for fear of reprisal, have not shared about their horrifying encounters in the genocide in which an estimated 800,000 people were killed and millions displaced. An estimated 75% of the Tutsi population are said to have died in the mass killings.

Other women who were sexually molested also preferred to keep silent fearing that they would never find a husband if they opened up about the rape, Uwineza said, adding that others feared that they would be rejected by their families. Still, he said, others were afraid that by speaking about the abuse, they would be asked to testify in public.

Uwineza said it is important that the stories of resilience of women who suffered the genocide against Tutsis and moderate Hutus be told “because 30 years is a big milestone.”

“It is important that the world knows how women can turn a test into a testimony, and a mess into a message,” he said.

Alluding to title of his book “Risen from the Ashes: Theology as Autobiography in Post-Genocide Rwanda,” he added: “In what had appeared as complete brokenness, resurrection has happened for many of these women.”

Uwineza recalled that in Rwanda’s 100 days of genocide against Tutsis, many women went into exile. Some, he said, joined the armed struggle in their effort to come back home when they felt they had no rights in their host countries.

According to Uwineza, women in Rwanda still carry with them wounds from a Church that abandoned them, where many were killed after they went to seek solace.

Rwanda’s story of affliction is better told by those who experienced it, Uwineza, who also lost his parents in the 1994 genocide, shared with ACI Africa. “History is often told from the perspective of winners,” he said. “But it is important to listen to the stories of the wounded.”

“Survivors are often the best authority when stories of struggle and resilience are told. When we speak, we give voice to those who were meant to be silenced in the genocide. Speaking is giving witness to their lives,” he said.

Those who suffered in the genocide also “left an unfinished agenda,” he said. “Telling their stories is joining their fight for dignity.”

Uwineza said the story of the genocide against the Tutsis must also continuously be told to counter the narratives of genocide deniers, who he said are on the rise, especially on social media platforms.

It is also important that other countries learn from Rwanda that violence leaves behind deep wounds, and some of these wounds never heal, Uwineza further said.

“Unfortunately, the only lesson we learn from history is that we don’t learn anything; we don’t seem to have learned from what happened in Rwanda,” he lamented.

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Uwineza underlined the need for Rwanda to engage with its history, painful as it may be. 

“After the genocide, we stopped teaching the history of Rwanda because the history we had was very divisive. But we can’t continue ignoring our past if we have to move forward,” he said. “Messy as it has been, it is our past. We therefore must engage it and own it. We all were wounded, and therefore, we need constructive history that will unite us.”

To heal, Rwanda also needs “a prophetic Church,” he told ACI Africa. 

“At the time of the genocide, the Rwandan population was around 80% Christian. Yet all these merciless killings happened, some at religious places. As a Church, we must stop and ask ourselves what went wrong,” Uwineza said. 

“We must develop a theology of hope and reparation that looks back to where we went wrong and one that envisions a better future so that these things are not repeated,” he continued.

“We must also acknowledge that some leaders in the Church made mistakes and that they do not represent the Church. We must also recognize Christian heroes who were killed trying to save lives,” he said.

According to Uwineza, a prophetic Church must also look at who is missing at the table of dialoguing into a better future. “Are women included at this table, given that they have made a lot of contributions in the civil society spaces?” he asked.

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On April 11, Uwineza gave an address at Villanova University on the topic “Women Peace-builders in Rwanda Since Genocide,” highlighting how a section of the Rwandan women affected by the genocide have risen above their wounds to contribute to the healing process of the country.

He said that since the genocide, the status of Rwandan women has improved. 

“Alongside their male counterparts, women chose to look beyond the horizon of tragedy. Women’s participation in associations, credit groups, and farm cooperatives has grown greatly,” Uwineza said, noting that women in the Rwandan Parliament have promoted laws that protect women against gender-based violence.

Additionally, after the genocide, women joined support groups and organizations such as Pro-Femmes, an advocacy organization for women; Abasa, an association of women who were the sole survivors of the genocide in their families; and Ineza, a sewing cooperative of women living with HIV as a result of the genocide.

“These women created a new landscape where they could breathe new air through their work and sharing of experiences. Others forged a new future for their children,” Uwineza told ACI Africa on April 14.

This story was first published by ACI Africa, CNA’s news partner in Africa, and has been adapted by CNA.

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