Llezlie L. Green
excerpted From: Propaganda and Sexual Violence in the Rwandan Genocide: an Argument for
Intersectionality in International Law, 33 Columbia Human Rights Law
Review 733-776, 733-755 (Summer 2002) (218 Footnotes)
A. Origins of the Genocide
To much of the general public in the international community,
genocide in Rwanda appeared suddenly, with a rapid and horrific surge in
violence against the Tutsi minority in 1994. Genocide, however, is not a
sudden event; it is the result of complex factors fueled by history,
psychology, and sociology, culminating in a quest for power. In order to
understand the sexual violence perpetrated throughout the 1994 genocide
and the gender hate propaganda that incited it, I will provide a brief
background to the events of 1994.
When European colonizers reached Rwanda, they encoun-tered a land
inhabited by three groups: the Tutsi, the Hutu, and the Twa. These three
groups were not distinguishable tribes with different cultures and
customs. Instead, they had "developed a single and highly
sophisticated language, Kinyarwanda, crafted a common set of religious
and philosophical beliefs, and created a culture which valued song,
dance, poetry, and rhetoric." Occupation and physical
characteristics, however, differentiated the three groups. The Hutu,
comprising the vast majority of the population, were peasants with
standard Bantu physical characteristics, resembling the Ugandan or
Tanganyikan populations. The Twa, comprising only approximately one
percent of the population, were pygmoids and either hunter-gatherers or
servants. The Tutsi, cattle-herders with particular phenotypes distinct
from the Hutu and Twa, constituted the remainder of the population. The
Tutsi were extremely tall and thin with angular facial features. The
Europeans used these phenotypic differences between the three groups to
produce a theory of ethnic superiority: the Twa were at the bottom,
followed by the Hutu, with the Tutsi at the top of what constituted an
The functional differentiation between the Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa was,
in large part, a creation of colonialism. After gaining Rwanda from the
Germans following World War I, the Belgian authorities systematized
indirect rule over Rwanda through Tutsis who had been educated at a
missionary-run school. This method of governance, combined with the
Tutsi elite's recognition that supporting the ethnic hierarchy created
by the colonialists would benefit them, led to a "substantialization
of Tutsi superiority" and its "institutionalization in the
colonial state apparatus." Shortly before Rwandan independence,
however, the Belgian colonial administra-tion became fearful of the
ascendance of the educated Tutsi elite and replaced Tutsi chiefs and
sub-chiefs with Hutus. Violent conflicts, largely along ethnic lines,
resulted, compelling the United Nations (U.N.) to intervene and oversee
elections in 1961.
Unfortunately, the ethnic divisions instigated by Rwanda's colonizers
had taken root. By 1994, power struggles and violent conflict between
the Tutsi and Hutu had characterized much of Rwandan politics since the
country gained its independence in 1962. A Hutu, President Juvenal
Habyarimana, and his Hutu-led party, the National Revolutionary Movement
for Development (MRND), had been in power since 1973. Pressures,
however, from growing internal opposition and international donors, both
pushing for a more moderate government, as well threats of invasion by
the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a Uganda-based group comprised
largely of Tutsi refugees, threatened Habyarimana's monopoly on power.
Events came to a head on April 6, 1994, when a plane carrying
President Habyarimana was shot down in Kigali, Rwanda. Hutu extremists
seized this opportunity to capitalize on the intense ethnic tensions and
conflict they had fueled through various means, including an anti-Tutsi
propaganda campaign. The following day, Rwandan Armed Forces and the
Interahamwe --militia groups--set up roadblocks and began a
house-to-house search to find and murder Tutsi. Between 500,000 and one
million Rwandan men, women, and children were slaughtered in the
genocidal persecution of Tutsi and in massacres of moderate Hutus
between April and July 1994.
The Rwandan genocide was not a chance incident. Nor did it arise
solely in response to President Habyarimana's death. The genocide was
the culmination of sweeping efforts that had been meticulously planned
over a period of years. The participation of the broader population was
a critical aspect of the Rwandan genocide; co-workers killed co-workers,
neighbors killed neighbors, friends killed friends, husbands killed
wives. In fact, a Rwandan theologian has argued that the genocide would
have been inconceivable before the 1990s and that it took four years of
preparation to make mass violence possible. To this end, the media
participated in a "structured attempt to use media to influence
awareness, attitudes, or behavior." The intensive propaganda
campaign fueled and funded by Hutu extremists was perhaps the most
effective element of this plan. Hutu extremists successfully spread hate
speech that would prove remarkably essential and effective before,
during, and after the genocide.
1. Generally--Print & Radio
The print media was an effective tool for disseminating information
to the populace in Rwanda. For example, Rwandan newspapers were
published in the capital, but urban workers carried the better known
ones back to the hills when traveling home for the weekends. Sixty-six
percent of the Rwandan population was literate, and those who could
read, read to others who could not. Hutu supporters exerted substantial
influence over the print media. Approximately eleven of the forty-two
new journals founded in 1991 were linked to the akazu, a "special
circle within the larger network of personal connections that worked to
A newspaper called Kangura was one of the most powerful voices of
hate. Kangura described itself as "the voice that seeks to awake
and guide the majority people." While the paper had a modest
circulation, its distribution included local burgomasters, and it
received active support from powerful military and government patrons.
In fact, government credit defrayed Kangura's costs, and Rwanda's mayors
received free copies to distribute. Furthermore, Kangura played a role
in the dissemination of anti-Tutsi sentiments at a time when
"government officials still felt publicly constrained by
international pressure from speaking openly of ethnicity."
Kangura published a flurry of articles and cartoons vehemently
disparaging Tutsis and advocating Hutu supremacy. For example, in March
1993, Kangura published an article criticizing the Tutsi entitled, A
Cockroach Cannot Give Birth to a Butterfly. In December of the same
year, a photograph of Grégoire Kayibanda, leader of the Hutu Revolution
and the first president of Rwanda, appeared on the cover of Kangura with
a machete, a cynical comment describing the Hutu as the race of God, and
a reference to defeating the Tutsis once and for all. The Ten
Commandments of the Hutu, published in 1990, was perhaps the most famous
and influential article to appear in Kangura. The Commandments espoused
a "doctrine of militant Hutu purity," declaring the Tutsi an
enemy of the Hutu people.
Radio, however, was the most important and influential medium through
which the Rwandan population received information. Approximately 29% of
households had radios. In urban areas, the number rose to 58.7%. These
figures, however, were likely higher by the start of the genocide since
"in some areas, the government distributed radios free to local
authorities before the genocide and they may have done so after the
killing began as well." People without radios listened to them at
bars or obtained information from their neighbors. In 1991, Rwanda had
only one radio station, Radio Rwanda. Radio Rwanda was the voice of the
government (the MRND) and of President Habyarimana himself. It
announced, for example, various political meetings, removals from public
office, and examination results for admission to secondary schools.
Radio Rwanda sometimes broadcast false information, particularly on the
progress of the civil war that preceded the genocide, but most people
did not have access to independent sources of information with which to
verify its claims.
Radio Rwanda underwent significant changes, however, in 1992. After
the establishment of a coalition government in April, the coalition
parties called for a new, more moderate direction for Radio Rwanda.
Ferdinand Nahimana, a staunch MRND supporter, was removed from his
position as supervisor of Radio Rwanda. Several months later, Jean-Marie
Vianney Higuro, a member of an opposing party, was named director with a
view to steering the station toward taking a more non-partisan stance.
In response, Hutu extremists created their own station. Radio
Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM), incorporated in April
1993, began broadcasting in August of the same year. MRND supporters
comprised an overwhelming majority of RTLM's founders. The purpose of
RTLM was "to prepare the people of Rwanda for genocide."
Indeed, the RTLM argued that the war against Tutsi domination would not
only require the participation of the armed forces, but also that of the
entire Rwandan population. Furthermore, RTLM's founders designed it to
appeal to particularly vulnerable populations: delinquents, the
unemployed, and gangs of thugs within the militia. RTLM broadcast on the
same frequencies as Radio Rwanda between 8 a.m. and 11 a.m., when Radio
Rwanda was not transmitting. This situation "encouraged listeners
to see the two as linked, if not as identical."
Through radio transmission, the Hutu extremists taught listeners that
the Hutu and Tutsi were two different people and that the Tutsi were
foreign conquerors who had refused to accept their loss of power in the
1959 revolution. The RTLM broadcasts warned the Tutsi: "You
cockroaches must know you are made of flesh! We won't let you kill! We
will kill you!" The same themes appeared in the propaganda both
before and during the genocide, suggesting a "deliberate
coordination among propagandists and between them and government
Radio transmissions were a critical component of the genocide. In
fact, "[d]uring the genocide, when communications and travel became
difficult, the radio became for most people the sole source of news as
well as the sole authority for interpreting its meaning." After the
RTLM identified and criticized an individual, the Interahamwe would
immediately seek him out and kill him. Therefore, the RTLM exercised
extensive and pervasive influence over the militia. In addition, the
RTLM recognized that the participation--both direct and indirect--of the
entire Rwandan population was necessary to the success of the genocide.
For example, during a broadcast after the genocide had begun, an
announcer stated: "Stand up, take action . . . without worrying
about interna-tional opinion."
Additionally, the RTLM employed various narrative tech-niques to
convince the Hutu population that the Tutsi posed a significant threat
to Hutu lives and livelihoods. The messages conveyed the idea that the
Hutu must "kill or be killed" and emphasized that the deaths
the Hutu would face at the hands of the Tutsi would be particularly
2. Gender Propaganda
It is critical to understand the importance of gender and hate
propaganda in the genocidal campaign. Gender issues comprised
significant elements of the "social construction of boundaries
between ethnic groups and . . . notions of racial purity." As such,
a consideration of gender sheds light on the genocide's complex
psychological components, thus clarifying the mass violence and
destruction that characterized the tragic events of 1994.
A brief description of inter-ethnic relationships in Rwanda places in
context the preoccupation with gender evident throughout the genocide.
Although not the norm, conjugal unions between the Tutsis and Hutus were
not uncommon in the decades preceding the genocide. Marriages between
Tutsi women and Hutu men, however, were much more common than marriages
between Tutsi men and Hutu women. Since ethnicity was determined along
patrilineal lines, the offspring of Tutsi women and Hutu men were
legally Hutu. As such, these marriages "conferred the full benefits
of Hutu citizenship to progeny who were perceived by many as racially
As the Hutu extremists methodically differentiated between Hutu and
Tutsi, they advanced a purer, reified version of Hutu culture. To this
end, they discouraged procreation between Hutu men and Tutsi women.
Tutsi women became the "pivotal enemies" in the Hutu
extremists' struggle because "they were socially positioned at the
permeable boundary between the two ethnic groups." Thus, Tutsi
women's ethnicity and gender made them particularly vulnerable to
Gender hate propaganda was perhaps the most virulent component of the
propaganda campaign. Propagandists portrayed Tutsi women as enemies of
the state, used by Tutsi men to "infiltrate Hutu ranks."
Propagandists claimed Tutsi women were more beautiful and desirable, but
"inaccessible to Hutu men whom they allegedly looked down upon and
were 'too good for."' This characterization led to what one Tutsi
woman explained as an indescribable hate. As such, "[r]ape served
to shatter these images by humiliating, degrading, and ultimately
destroying the Tutsi woman."
Propagandists presented Tutsi women as sexual objects. Extremist
literature contained cartoons that portrayed Tutsi women in sexual
positions with various politicians. The literature also depicted Tutsi
women as prostitutes who used their sexual charms to seduce the Western
forces stationed in Rwanda. For example, a cartoon appeared in print,
depicting Canadian General Romeo Dallaire, head of the U.N. peacekeeping
force in Rwanda before and during the genocide, in an embrace with
scantily clad Tutsi women. The cartoon read: "General Dallaire and
his army have fallen into the trap of fatal women."
In fact, the campaign against Tutsi women well preceded the actual
genocide. In 1990, four years before the start of the genocide, Tutsi
women were frequently the centerpiece of propagandist efforts to
heighten ethnic tensions and engender hatred. The Ten Command-ments of
the Hutu appeared in a December issue of Kangura. Four of these
"commandments" dealt specifically with women:
Every Hutu should know that a Tutsi woman, wherever she is, works for
the interest of her Tutsi ethnic group. As a result, we shall consider a
traitor any Hutu who: marries a Tutsi woman; befriends a Tutsi woman;
employs a Tutsi woman as a secretary or a concubine.
Every Hutu should know that our Hutu daughters are more suitable and
conscientious in their role as woman, wife, and mother of the family.
Are they not beautiful, good secretaries and more honest?
Hutu woman, be vigilant and try to bring your husbands, brothers and
sons back to reason.
The Rwandese Armed Forces should be exclusively Hutu. The experience
of the October  war has taught us a lesson. No member of the
military shall marry a Tutsi.
These commandments clearly demonstrate a fixation with demonizing
Tutsi women. Tutsi women were described as enemy infiltrators, Hutu
women were exalted above Tutsi women, and inter-marrying between Hutu
men and Tutsi women was fiercely discouraged. In addition, a later issue
of Kangura criticized Tutsi women for monopolizing employment in the
public and private sectors, thus contributing to the unemployment of the
These images and characterizations clearly affected the psyche of the
participants in the genocide. Rape survivors have recounted statements
of their violators such as:
We want to see how sweet Tutsi women are.
You Tutsi women think that you are too good for us.
We want to see if a Tutsi woman is like a Hutu woman.
If there were peace you would never accept me.
These statements reveal that propagandists' efforts success-fully
demonized Tutsi women, thus increasing their vulnerability to sexual
violence throughout the genocide.
The link between the gender-based hate propaganda and sexual violence
is clear. Propagandists used sexualized images of Tutsi women to
instigate ethnic hate and conflict. These images incited hatred of these
women and of their sexuality. Thus, both ethnic and gender stereotypes,
functioning individually and jointly, fueled the sexual violence
committed against Tutsi women.
C. Sexual Violence
"Rape is a crime worse than others. There's no death worse than
that." The figure of five hundred thousand to one million deaths
mentioned above does not include the thousands of women whose lives were
spared, but who were left to experience a living death. Sexual violence,
primarily committed against Tutsi women, was rampant throughout the
genocide. In 1996, René Degni-Ségui, Special Rapporteur of the U.N.
Commission on Human Rights, reported that women "may even be
regarded as the main victims of the massacres, with good reason, since
they were raped and massacred and subjected to other brutalities."
The total number of women affected remains unclear. The official figure
reported for rape cases provided by the Ministry for the Family and the
Promotion of Women--15,700--was most likely a gross underestimate. An
approximation based on the number of resulting pregnancies, however,
yields a number ranging from 250,000 to 500,000 rapes.
1. Types of Sexual Violence
While many women were massacred along with the men throughout the
genocide, the perpetrators often spared women from death, instead
sentencing them to rape and humiliation. The violation of Tutsi women
was not a casualty of war, but "a step in the process of
deconstruction of the Tutsi group-- destruction of the spirit, of the
will to live, and of life itself." The sexual violence took many
forms. The Interahamwe militia and the military raped Tutsi women and
girls, forced them into collective and individual sexual slavery, and
mutilated them. Even very young children did not escape the terror; the
victims ranged from two years old to over fifty years old. Furthermore,
pregnant women or women who had recently given birth were not spared;
their rapes frequently resulted in death from hemorrhaging and other
medical complications. Moreover, the perpetrators forced some women
"to kill their own children before or after being raped."
The militia worked in groups, taking Tutsi women from their homes or
out of hiding and gang-raping them, often multiple times. Many of the
women who survived an individual or gang rape were picked up by another
group of Interahamwe and raped again. Furthermore, the military and
civilian authorities--including regular soldiers, members of the
national police force, members of the elite Presidential Guard,
burgomasters, and heads of sectors--condoned and encouraged the sexual
The militia commonly employed sexual mutilation and public
humiliation to heighten the suffering of their victims. Some women and
girls "were stripped and/or slashed and exposed to public
mockery" while others "had pieces of trees branches pushed
into their vagina." Moreover, the perpetrators tortured their
victims by mutilating their genitals and cutting off their breasts and
The military also collectively detained the women so that they could
provide sexual services. These women experienced rape and gang rape.
Some women were held for the duration of the genocide. Others were
forced to move to neighboring countries with the militia once the
In addition, the militia members held individual women for personal
sexual service. They locked these women in their homes or in the homes
of militia members for varying durations. While some termed the
arrangement "forced marriage" and called the women
"wives," in reality, the militia held these women captive in
Thus, the gendered anti-Tutsi images and rhetoric that pervaded
Rwandan society through gender-based hate propaganda were translated
into the systemic violation of Rwandan women during the genocide. The
"indescribable hate" instigated through gender hate propaganda
played out in a horrific pattern of sexual violence, the effects of
which continue to be felt by its survivors.
2. Effects of Sexual Violence
The psychological, social, and physical aspects of such appalling
sexual violations have unalterably affected the survivors. In a society
that has traditionally regarded women as dependents of their male
relatives and first and foremost as wives and mothers, sexual violence
has particularly devastating effects. For example, traditional Rwandan
society values women for the number of children they can produce. Thus,
physical mutilation and violence produces a dual harm: a physical harm
based on the injury itself, and an emotional and social harm for the
woman who can no longer reproduce and thus fulfill her role as a mother.
In fact, U.N. Special Rapporteur Degni-Ségui found that
"psychological problems have been what the victims . . . have most
commonly shared." There are varied sources of the shame associated
with sexual violence. For example, African tradition prohibits the
sexual acts committed and considers them taboo. The stigmatization
associated with these acts has compounded their detrimental effects on
the victims. Indeed, victims of sexual violence have demonstrated a
variety of responses ranging from over- sensitivity and shame to "a
form of madness."
The sexual violence also has resulted in social exclusion. As one
survivor explained, "after rape, you don't have value in the
community." Girls fearing that they are no longer able to find
husbands have fled their homes to live in seclusion and anonymity. Thus,
although these women's lives were theoretically spared, their traumatic
experiences have robbed them of their community and identity.
Forced impregnation has had deep psychological effects on Tutsi
women. Suffered exclusively by women, forced pregnancy involves a
violation of, among other things, reproductive freedom and sexual
autonomy, and has lasting effects given that the women may then have to
raise the offspring. Tutsi women who became pregnant have suffered
intense shame and ostracization in a society that is particularly
unwilling to accept unwed mothers. Moreover, mistreatment by society,
including by their own families, has led many unmarried mothers to
resort to abortion or infanticide. The passage of time is unlikely to
cure the psychological harm done to the victims of forced impregnation.
Women also suffered the various physical effects associated with
sexual violence. Indeed, "[t]he physical injuries and their
consequences range[d] from mere abrasions to instant death, and include
infection with sexually transmissible diseases," including HIV.
Rwanda has one of the highest rates of HIV-positive persons, and
"militiamen carrying the virus used it as a 'weapon,' . . .
intending to cause delayed death."
Furthermore, the effect on Tutsi women's reproductive capacity may be
expressed in both physical and psychological terms. For example, one
survivor expressed: "After the war, I found out that I was
pregnant. But I had an abortion . . . no, not really an abortion. The
baby just came out dead." Thus, this survivor had to endure not
only a physical risk, but also the psychological damage resulting from a
Ultimately, sexual violence had harsh and lasting conse-quences for
Tutsi women. The harm experienced by Tutsi women has been particularly
severe in light of the physical, psychological, and social impact that
it continues to have on their daily lives. With a population that is
estimated to be seventy percent female, the magnitude of the detrimental
effects on Rwandan society as a whole cannot be underestimated. Tutsi
women were violated on multiple levels: as Tutsis, as women, and as
Tutsi women. An analysis of their experiences and the attendant legal
implications requires an under- standing of the ways in which their
multiple identities situated them within the conflict.