*content warning: sexual assault and violence*
In November 2018, my cousin was tied down and raped by her boss, who runs a hospitality business in Rwanda. She confided in me to help her get justice. Two months later, I got frustrated with how the case was being handled by investigation, prosecution and police. As a feminist activist, I felt challenged and realized issues, beyond her case, that are major barriers to achieving the real justice; social and gender justice. With her consent, i am using her case for the analysis presented in this article
Rwanda has always been a patriarchal society; colonialism and capitalism only made it worse by perpetuating gendered divisions of work and roles in society. With the introduction of formal education under colonial rule, males were the only beneficiaries who also later monopolised economic opportunities that gave them more power and value in the society. They occupied decision making positions in political, economic and social sectors.This was maintained even in post-colonial Rwanda. Most Rwandan families prioritized education of the boy child and girls were only groomed to be good wives and mothers.
It wasn’t until post Genocide against Tutsis in 1994 that the new Rwandan government introduced major progressive social economic and political shifts fuelled by a high political will and progressive minds in the new government, Rwanda immediately embarked on correcting the image of the country on the t international scene, by ratifying gender responsive international and regional instruments and revising its then discriminatory laws. Also, women comprised majority of the population at the time, and it only made sense to not exclude women in social economic and political matters. For the first time, women were allowed to take leadership positions, own bank accounts, inherit and have rights to property and land, and girls education was given priority. Gender based violence (GBV) was condemned and a law punishing GBV was passed by 2008. To date, Rwanda is known to be one of the most pro-women’s rights and pro-gender equality countries not only in Africa but globally, often compared to countries like Sweden. 25 years after the major legal and policy changes were introduced, alot has changed but Rwanda remains largely patriarchal. Gender sensitive laws and policies do not immediately correct centuries of gendered practices, values and division of roles.
As in case of my cousins’ assault and rape, there are a number of key issues that remain problematic in systems, structures and social values in general that if not addressed, gender based inequalities, injustices, discriminations and violence will persist:
Gender inequalities are made worse by economic inequalities. Vulnerable women and girls remain at great disadvantage and at a higher risk of abuse, harassment and violence, and being violated by those that have economic power over them including their partners, families and employees. My cousin dropped out of school at secondary level due to lack of financial means and moved from a rural area to the city in search of a job that could earn her income to support herself and her family. She got a job as a waitress at a decent hotel in Kigali city. She got harassed repeatedly by her boss but quitting the job, was not an economically viable, and was not an option. This was the same boss that raped her.
My cousin represents a big percentage of young women in Rwanda who live and work in similar conditions. She wasn’t entitled to any medical or social security benefits since private sector companies are not obliged or held accountable by law to provide such benefits to low income workers. Yet, the private sector employs 80% of Rwanda’s workforce and informal sector remains the largest sector (https://www.newtimes.co.rw/news/what-future-work-rwanda) where exploitation is high.
Women and girls’ economic justice is still a dream for many and contributes largely to their vulnerability, exposure and tolerance of harassment and violence.Care work continues to heavily rely on women and girls who at the same time are expected to compete equally in labour markets. There are limited comprehensive gender responsive social protection programs which could ensure a fall back position, to avoid deprivation of families and individuals especially for women and girls. There is also a lack of regulations covering decent work and a living minimum wage for lower class and informal sector workers which results into exploitation of cheap labor, mostly of women, by the private sector.
Having gender sensitive laws and policies at national level doesn’t mean everyone within the responsible government institutions has capacity and can be held accountable to upholding gender responsive principles. It’s almost three months since my cousin was raped and no case has been filed in court yet by the government prosecution, in Rwanda where GBV is denounced, and there are programs in place. If it can take this long for a case that had immediate response and evidence collected on the spot, one wonders how long other cases with some complications can take. During this time, she has been summoned more than five times by different government institutions and had to do medical tests more than once. She received counselling only on the day she was raped and no follow up was made after that. She has been left to deal on her own with mental health issues that follows such an experience. Most public positions are held by men including police, investigation, lawyers and judges, who have been socialized to treat women as inferior and to normalise harassment and violence done to women. Apart from national laws, it’s not a requirement but rather a voluntary act for other institutions, organizations and private sector, like where my cousin worked, to put in place institutional policies and mechanisms to prevent and respond to GBV, and most don’t have these policies.
There is need to ensure all people are accountable to laws and policies, provision of efficient services and are conscious about re-stigmatization of a person who has gone through rape. In addition to national laws on GBV, all working spaces including in private sectors need to comply to state laws and uphold the country’s gender equality principles and be held accountable to establishing and implementing institutional measures and mechanisms including on prevention and response mechanisms for GBV.
The #MeToo movement has sparked a lot of debates around stigma faced by women who have been sexually harassed and assaulted. It is not uncommon that in a patriarchal society women and girls get blamed for sexual violence.Similarly in Rwanda, conversations around rape can often y turn into how women and girls seduce men and how sometimes it's their fault. Such a culture of ‘victim blaming’ can lead to women continue to live in abusive relationships and environments and think twice about reporting cases. The media also plays a big role in perpetuating stigma. Many journalists reached out to me regarding publishing a story on the case off my cousin, but quickly canceled on learning that they would be talking to me and not my cousin (because she wasn’t ready). They canceled because they believed the story would not get as much attention. Without implementing consistent programs to address social stigma in all parts of society, it remains difficult to eradicate practices that normalise GBV and blame those affected.
There is no single law that can address GBV in its entirety because GBV is an outcome of deeper rooted causes that remain superficially addressed. Imprisoning the man that raped my cousin doesn't even bring about real justice. Real Justice requires going deep and beyond to address unequal structures, systems and continuously challenging social norms.