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"Rwanda's future is its women"

ICFTU OnLine..., 218/991123/CL, 23 November 1999

Brussels, November 23, 1999 (ICFTU OnLine): Yollande Mukagasana lost her husband, her three children and a large part of her family during the April 1994 genocide. After testifying to her own sufferings (1), she decided to gather, from inside Rwanda's prisons, the stories of those who took part in the killings. After criss-crossing the country in the company of photographer Alain Kazierakis, she analyses for us the present situation in Rwanda. For her, the reconstruction is starting from the wrong bases.

Q: You are not the only woman today to have access to Rwandan prisons, but you are probably the only one who is able to speak at such length and as freely with the women involved in the genocides. How do these women live, and are there many of them behind bars?

A: Many women have killed, but very few of them plead guilty. In general, it is often people who have been indoctrinated for years, like the military, intellectuals and religious, who adopt this attitude. On the contrary, those who admit to their deeds are often those who were convinced at the very time of carrying out the act. These women find it almost impossible to say that they have killed, even though certain of them are accused of killing their own children or husbands. One of them told me that she had killed a young man of thirty with a piece of straw; another woman who is accused of killing seven children and two women, will admit only to stealing the loincloth of one of the persons brought in front her before killing him. All this makes me very afraid.

Q: And outside the prisons, what is the situation of the women who survived?

Today, women make up 70% of the Rwandan population, and 50% of households are run by women, most of them widows (2). And, in a certain way, it is they who are the future of Rwanda. However, most of them are without work and no longer have homes. Many carry the physical and psychological after-effects of the violence they have suffered (wounds, traumas, rape and the resulting HIV infections). But there are no structures to help them. It is in the countryside that the situation is the worst. In the hill country, all one sees is endless fields, which once were filled with cows. In the towns, the women have more chance of finding jobs. But the cost of living is high, and even two salaries are not enough. With a job in a ministry, for example, a couple can earn 6000 francs a month. It is not enough, but they do not want to give up this work. Why? They tell me that this at least allows them to buy on account from the grocery.

Q: What assistance do these women receive?

A very small handful of non-government agencies seek to help these women. Unfortunately, even those who do something seem to do everything the wrong way round. For example, I had the opportunity to visit two villages of women survivors at Nyamata (south-east Rwanda, 45 minutes from Kigali), and at Mbasa, close to Butare (south-west Rwanda). These villages have been built with the help, in particular, of funds from the European Union and the Rwandan government's National Survivors' Fund. Their only inhabitants are women and orphaned children. But the new houses they are offered are no more than four walls and two outside doors. I think that the people funding these villages ought to come and see what is needed to return people to a decent existence. If you put people like this on a hill, build four walls and put them inside without any idea what they are going to live from, it is nonsense. In most cases, they don't even have water, and Rwanda is full of springs! On the other hand, they are given goats. But in Rwandan culture, you never give goat's milk to a child and you never drink it yourself. When a woman receives a goat, she feels very humiliated. Even so, this is not the only taboo which women brave today in order to survive. The youngest of them climb onto the roofs to build houses and to earn a little money, something that would have been inconceivable in the Rwandan culture a few years ago. But now the taboo has been lifted.

Q.: Elsewhere in Africa, women often set up small trading networks on markets or agricultural partnerships. Does this also apply in Rwanda?

A: No, this is not part of the traditions either. In Rwanda, people have always liked to have their private life. For this reason, on the markets, you will see women sitting all on their own, selling fruit in little baskets. Others plait hair. Nonetheless, women try to work together. We went to visit an association of women survivors in the south-east of the country. But it is clear that these women are not able to agree among themselves. Two, yes, but more than that ...

Q: Many children also have to work. How can one reverse this phenomenon?

A: It is true that many children are forced to work to help their mother or their older sister feed and clothe what remains of the family. Many other street children work to survive. And this is an enormous loss. If we want to save the country, we need to focus on educating the children. And if we fail to achieve this, the population is damaged in the long term.

(1) Yollande Mukagasana has already written two books of eye-witness accounts of the genocide. The first, published in 1997 by Fixot, is called "La mort ne veut pas de moi" (Death doesn't want me). the second, published by Robert Laffont in 1999, is entitled, "N'aie pas peur de savoir" (Don't be afraid to know).

(2) The number of survivors is estimated at 50,000 at most.

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