Rwanda anniversary highlights the need to look back as well as forward

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Last week, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres met Paul Kagame, president of Rwanda, to mark 25 years since the genocide which left around 800,000 people dead and wiped out 70% of the country’s Tutsi minority. In his speech to honor those who died, Guterres urged the international community to “take a hard look at the present” and stem the rising tide of racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism.

The U.N. no doubt has a point. But, to truly honor the Rwanda victims, we need to look at the past, too. Around the world, we need to help the survivors of war and genocide rebuild their lives, starting with the women condemned to a lifetime of shame for the ‘crime’ of being raped in conflict.

Since time immemorial, women’s bodies have been weaponized by invading forces to dehumanize and subjugate rebellious communities, and the practice remains uncomfortably prevalent today. So, too, does the stigma: all too often, the victims and their children face a new horror, shunned by their own societies and effectively blamed for their ordeal.

In Rwanda, the UN estimates that 250,000 Tutsi women were raped by Hutu militia. Survivors report being rounded up and gang-raped, hunted down when they tried to flee. The attackers even included AIDS victims, corralled into ‘rape squads’ by the Hutu extremists. But instead of recognizing and supporting these women after the conflict, Rwanda’s deeply conservative society viewed them as an embarrassment, compounded by the fact that many of them had contracted HIV and suffered physical scarring.

So the survivors stayed silent, left alone to battle a range of problems from nightmares to alcoholism, sleeplessness to anti-social behavior. The authorities offered little support; as relief workers have noted, the Rwandan government was so preoccupied with feeding and housing the survivors that they offered practically nothing in the way of counselling, compounding the victims’ problems and reinforcing society’s taboos.

Twenty-five years on, Rwanda has made major strides on gender equality, a point noted by Guterres in last week’s speech. Yet many women who suffered during the Hutu genocide continue to suffer in silence, and the torture is just as acute among their children. The Hutu fighters are thought to have fathered up to 20,000 people, and these ‘children of rape’ report being rejected, unloved and even abandoned by their mothers.

Familiar tale

It’s a familiar story in Iraq, where thousands of Yazidi women were raped by Islamic State during the group’s ruthless offensive around Mount Sinjar. The deeply conservative Yazidi society, which still practices honor killing, has at least granted a religious decree ‘forgiving’ the women who have escaped Isis. However, there’s no such decree for the children fathered by the jihadis.

Unsurprisingly, many women have opted to put these babies into orphanages, rather than risk being ostracized by their families (and attacked by their shamed husbands). Some women have even opted to return to their former Isis captors, believing their native community holds greater peril; the Yazidi religion passes through the father, so the children will be outsiders for their entire lives.

Decades in the darkness

At least the Yazidi women have a champion. Nadia Murad, a former Isis sex slave, has won the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts to raise awareness of war rape, particularly in her home community. There is a chance that her tireless campaigning will one day provide some sort of redress. Sadly, however, it’s far more common that war rape victims endure decades of solitude, as they have in Rwanda.

In Bosnia, up to 50,000 women were raped by Serbian militia during the Yugoslav wars of the early 1990s, part of an ethnic cleansing campaign in the country’s Muslim villages. The stories of Serbian troops dragging their victims off to rape camps’ or hotels converted into chambers of horror, are well-documented. But in a country which remains deeply divided on sectarian grounds, the authorities have offered precious little recognition of these women, fearful of inflaming old ethnic tensions. Bosnia’s deep-seated misogyny provides the perfect pretext for this injustice.

As recently as 2017, a mere 123 cases involving sexual violence had been heard in court, and only 10 victims had received compensation. Although a number of high-profile cases have finally reached trial, perpetrators have often avoided justice, even when their victims have identified them in court. As a final indignity, those Bosniak survivors seeking reparations have been fined for speaking out. Shunned by those who purport to protect them, the survivors have been left to a life of poverty and unemployment, not to mention domestic abuse.

50-year wait

Yet the Bosniaks’ wait for justice is nothing compared to those Vietnamese women raped by South Korean troops during their country’s war of independence. Nearly 50 years on, these women have been ignored by their own government and have yet to receive as much as an apology from its South Korean counterpart.

Once again, this neglect has created two groups of victims: the women assaulted by South Korean troops, and their children. After the conflict, the women were condemned for sleeping with the enemy, attacked in the street, even thrown in jail. Their offspring were known as ‘Lai Dai Han’, or ‘Mixed Blood’, and bullied mercilessly. These children are now entering middle age, but many remain illiterate, having been denied an education on the grounds of parentage, and given little access to healthcare.

Now, at last, there is a growing call for justice, and Murad is one of the leading advocates, using her stature to demand recognition. In January, she attended an event at the British Parliament, attended by members of the Lai Dai Han community as well as two former U.K. foreign secretaries. Just like Iraq’s Yazidis, Vietnam’s forgotten rape victims will only benefit from her support.

But Murad can’t do it on her own. Justice for the world’s war rape victims, and their children, requires coordinated action on a global level, to give survivors the support they needed and dismantle the toxic patriarchies which prevent so many from speaking out. While Guterres is right to tell us to move on and improve the world as it is today, we owe it to those women to look backwards, too – no matter how uncomfortable the sights we find along the way.