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Genocide, Women's Rights

A Gender Perspective on Rwandan Gacaca Courts

By Lucie Gil, Institute for Cultural Diplomacy. 

The UN estimates that over 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed during the Rwandan genocide, from April to July 1994. In the aftermath, more than 100,000 individuals suspected to have taken part in the massive atrocities were arrested and imprisoned, leading to prison overcrowding and inhumane conditions of detention. With a destroyed judicial system and the disappearing of the majority of qualified judges – who either ran away because of their involvement in the genocide or were murdered when trying to oppose it – Rwanda faced an unprecedented challenge in terms of providing post-conflict justice. Despite the establishment of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) under a UN mandate, the new government led by President Paul Kagame estimated that it could take almost 200 years to try all suspected “genocidaires” through the conventional judicial system. A law was then enacted on January 26, 2001 to resuscitate a traditional and indigenous form of justice embodied by the Gacaca.

Gacaca judges

The Gacaca system is a specific form of transitional justice that can be considered a local version of a truth and reconciliation commission. It is primarily based on popular participation since members of the community are required to take part in the hearings as witnesses, judges, and parties. Since these community courts usually dealt with minor offenses that disrupted the social order, giving locally- elected judges the jurisdiction to prosecute genocide and other crimes of humanity signified a major step forward. Besides the obvious aim of relieving the conventional tribunals, the Gacaca were also seen as an important tool to facilitate reconciliation between the Hutus and Tutsis, and initiate a rapid progression towards peace and rule of law. On June 18, 2012, the Rwandan government announced the end of the mechanism, as the large backlog of cases had been cleared and the system was becoming too burdensome on the domestic population.

According to the Rwandan Minister of Justice, Tharcisse Karugarama, almost two million people have been tried by the traditional courts in the last decade, most of them judged guilty. It is important to note, however, that the Gacaca experience has represented a mixed success. Human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have acknowledged that the rights of defense were often disregarded, and suspicions of bias and corruption, as well as the lack of qualifications of the judges, have regularly been stressed. Both victims and perpetrators also remain doubtful and unsatisfied. The former have pointed out the general absence of compensation, and the negotiated nature of judgments that often lead to reduced sentences if the accused confess their crimes. The latter, on the other side, underline the Gacaca as a disguised victory’s justice because of their incompetency to judge the vengeful crimes perpetrated by the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) after 1994.

Although several assessments have been made and reports regarding the Gacaca are numerous, Sarah L. Wells notes that a gender perspective is lacking most of the time. Yet, the Rwandan genocide seems to have affected men and women differently. While most of the male victims have been murdered or forced to leave the country, 250,000 to 500,000 women and girls have been raped between April and July 1994, according to the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Rwanda. It is essential to take into account the long-term effects of such crimes, ranging from HIV-AIDS infection to ostracism and marginalization from the rest of the community. Moreover, female survivors are far more likely to be widows than their male counterparts, and to be left in charge of the household without any financial resources. In this regard, it is important to highlight that one of the most unexpected results of war and genocide has been the shift in gender roles. Women have definitely been victimized and become more vulnerable because of sexual crimes. Nonetheless, most of them have also been compelled to give up their traditional roles, assigned by the patriarchal construction of hierarchies, and started replacing their fathers, brothers, and husbands to ensure the survival of both their family and the community.  Since then, they have been key actors in the reconciliation process, especially at the community level. It is, therefore, interesting to analyze how women have experienced the Gacaca mechanism, as victims, judges, or witnesses.

Initially, Gacaca judges did not have the authority to deal with the most serious cases of rape and sexual violence. Those labeled as “genocide-related” remained the competency of the conventional courts. In 2008, however, a new law transferred these cases to the Gacaca courts, raising a wave of protests among women and human rights associations. Victims interviewed by Human Rights Watch seemed to be reluctant to testify in front of Gacaca courts due to the public and popular nature of such entities. To ensure the protection of rape victims, the Gacaca tried to reproduce the closed-door procedures (namely huit-clos) of the conventional courts, and also allowed a written procedure through which victims could avoid showing up and confronting the perpetrators. However, it appears that victims were not always informed about this option. Even if they were, some backed out anyway, often claiming that the guarantees were not sufficient. It is also important to keep in mind that the judges formed part of the community and sometimes even had links with the accused, meaning that the community would probably be aware of the trials in any case. Moreover, the assumption that the truth-telling process would cure and relieve victims has not been demonstrated as such. Various associations have highlighted the risk of re-victimization and traumatization such confrontation involves. Even though the Gacaca law initiated the right for victims to be accompanied by a counsellor, friend, or relative to the trial, the number of counsellors usually appeared to be insufficient.

Despite these criticisms, one must not forget that the Gacaca system has proved to be quite a realistic solution, if we take into account the exceptional circumstances Rwanda was facing in 1994. It has enabled a large number of victims to lodge a complaint, which would not have been possible through the conventional courts only. Furthermore, though the truth may always be subject to caution, a number of facts have been revealed, and some victims have seen their relatives’ bodies return after the process. If we stick to the gender perspective, we also have to mention that Gacaca has been one of the most powerful tools for women’s empowerment and the reshaping of gender roles. Indeed, for the first time, Rwandan women have been allowed to participate in these traditional courts, either as victims, witnesses, or judges, and female representatives have been sitting in each one of them. Then again, if the International Court Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) sentenced the first woman for genocide in June 2011 – Pauline Nyiramasuhuko, Minister under the Hutu extremist government – no information seems to be available regarding women who have possibly been accused in Gacaca, reminding us that the gender gap remains to be filled.


Center for Cultural Diplomacy Studies Publication
Institute for Cultural Diplomacy


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