Experience file Dossier : Gender and Conflict Transformation

February 2005

The impact of the Rwandan genocide on gender identity

Victims, survivors and custodians of ethnicity.

Keywords: Social sciences and peace | Internet and peace | | To analyse conflicts from a social point of view | | | | | | | | Rwanda

Conflict description:

The 1994 Rwandan Genocide saw over 900,000 Tutsis and Hutus from the opposition brutally massacred over a period of 3 months. What are some of its implications for gender relations?

Changing roles of men and women:

As a consequence of the genocide, there was a large number of households came to be lead by women and children. It was not uncommon to find a 10 year old child taking care of her/his siblings. Both children and women became the major providers or breadwinners of their families, something that was previously the role of men.

Changes in identities:

Whereas in the past a woman who was strong, firm, etc was seen as “a man” but with a negative connotation (as in who does she think she is pretending to be a man?), it soon became acceptable that women could be providers, make decisions about their households, speak in public and give their opinions on what was happening at community and other levels. Of course traditions and values die hard, so you could also hear people saying that women would not manage alone. Since there was a larger number of women (widows), you could hear jokes like: (with reference to NGOs involved in humanitarian assistance) “in addition to distributing food or helping widows rebuild their houses, you should also import husbands for them!”

While polygamy is illegal in Rwanda, at some stage people were discussing to legalize it because they believed women could not manage alone. But despite this, women, particularly widows, have managed to bring about some positive changes. We have seen a growing number of organizations advocating women’s and children’s rights, and achieving considerable results. For example, one area where women and children were deprived of their rights was property. Immediately after the genocide, male relatives could come and chase the widow away with her children, and take over the property. But, women mobilized themselves and defended their fellows’ right, which resulted in the enactment of a law allowing women to inherit property from both their parents and their husbands.

One last important point is that of ‘identity’, not gender identity, but ethnic identity. We have cases of people who have lost their identities, and this issue is critical to the transformation of the conflict. Girls and boys of mixed ethnic group (inter-ethnic marriages) do no longer ‘belong’. This loss of identity and belonging is even worse with Tutsi women married to Hutus and whose husbands are in prison on account of involvement in genocide: they are rejected by both their own families and their husband’s families.

Impact on relationship:

There is a mixture of relationships. On one hand, there is an increase in respect for women and their ability to run their homes and to participate in the decision making processes. There is increased acceptance that women can be ‘the men’ of the household. There are more women in decision-making positions than never before. In parliament, Rwandan women hit the record by filling more than the targeted 30%.

At household level, things have improved as well. There is a recognition that women also need to develop their carrier, participate in public life, particularly peace building and reconciliation initiatives…

On the other hand, there is suspicion and fear on the part of men, particularly those who are in prisons accused of genocide. Caritas Stella Mukankusi has been talking to some, in a program she conducted on the reintegration of released prisoners. They are worried that their wives have been taking care of the home for many years (usually more than 7 years), that they have now become ‘independent’, so what would happen? How would the husband fit into the household? Some are afraid that they would not be accepted by the children who have not seen them for 5-7 years. How would the children react? Would the husbands still be seen as fathers, as heads of the family?


In the following pages the author introduces the gender dimension of the Rwandan Genocide in 1994. The author carefully explains the changes in roles, identities, rights and relationship that women and men have gone through as a result of the genocide.


  • The author of the file is : CARITAS STELLA MUKANKUSI.