The lives of those born from rape during the Rwandan Genocide of 1994


In 2014 I travelled to Rwanda to conduct research in the field. My topic of interest was the lives of those born from rape during the Rwandan genocide of ‘94.  Many people ask how it is I came to focus on this particular group of people and to be honest I don’t think I ever had a clear understanding of that myself. I began by conducting extensive desk research, which included academic as well as a number of journalistic articles. 2014 was the 20-year anniversary of the genocide and a number of articles had been written about these adolescents and their communities. During this time I became frustrated at the limited resources available and the repetitive narrative that they were conveying. This was the catalyst that pushed me to go to Rwanda and find out more for myself.

By Tekie Quaye

Arriving in Rwanda I was immediately surprised to see how the country was so different to the image I had generated in my minds eye. Informed by my extensive reading that situated itself in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide I was shocked to find a country that had moved forward and developed in so many ways. I feel this first initiation was emblematic of the experience I was to have as a whole, discovering the truth of the adolescents and the formidable gap which exists in the illustration of these changes.

During this time I came to understand the (then) current context that surrounded their lives, past and futures. The greatest personal lesson of which was the strength of the individuals, their capacity for forgiveness and determination to flourish. Alongside this I came to see how local organisations that had been working with these adolescents and their mothers were able to do so without engaging all the academic and rights based rhetoric my reviewed literature had been offering as a panacea. They, instead, illuminated the positive relationships the youths had been able to foster with their mother and just how important the issue of disclosure and understanding the truth of their history was for these young adults.  These were my two greatest findings.

My thesis which was created as a result of my time in the field was divided into eight chapters. This included a detailed illustration of the relationship between the youths conceived of rape and their mothers, as well as unpacking the issue of disclosure and identity, the context surrounding these youths, family and the Rwandan community, alongside the relationship between the subjects and local organisations, the Rwandan Government and the international community.

After briefly talking about my research project and the literature I want to move on to discuss the importance of the relationships between theadolescents and their mothers, alongside the issue of disclosure.

Though this research was undertaken a couple of years ago, I believe it’s weight still carries and remains of great importance. Important to acknowledge the voices of the youths, as well as being important as children being born from rape still continues today. As previously mentioned my field research coincided with the 20 year anniversary of the genocide, which meant that these now adults were in the peak of their adolescence and on the cusp of turning twenty themselves. I would be the first to acknowledge that the challenges and context affecting the lives of these now adults may have altered in the last few years but I believe that my research helps to raise the bar to a more contemporary understanding.

I wish to make this clear from the beginning as one of the greatest issues I came to realise while conducting my research project is how old information and unreliable statistics dominate and are continually utilised to illustrate a ‘contemporary’ image of the circumstances that surround and affect these adolescents. Dated information continues to occupy the space that could instead be engaged by current data and an accurate portrayal of the current situation.

It is an issue that there seems to be a lack of sufficient research within the conversation surrounding young people born from rape. This handicap has led to the recycling of information whose relevance and accuracy may have ceased long ago. It is of great importance that the illustration and support of the contemporary and specific voices of these individuals is considered and included when addressing their situation. Circumstances that may have been the case over a decade ago are not the same as the current situation in Rwanda as children are beginning to foster positive relations with their mothers and society.

Young people born as a result of rape during the Rwandan genocide are a group yet to come out from the shadows of international understanding and concern. The number of women who were raped during the genocide will never been known, though some estimate the number to be at least 250,000. In a similar vein the number of children who were born as a result of rape vary, numbers ranging from 5,000- 20,000. Looking to make a positive contribution to the lack of literature and specific country context my study sought to utilise the information gained through the qualitative interviews that were conducted with counsellors and the heads of organisations who work directly with the subjects in Rwanda.

When I first arrived in Rwanda and began my interviews it become apparent very early on that the rights based rhetoric and literature I had based my line of questioning failed to reflect the reality of the adolescents. As such I re-worked my approach and instead took my lead from the experts, those who have lived through and continued to assist the children and mothers over the last decades.

I believe this is what sets my research apart from others conducted in the past, as it’s key focus is to highlight and narrate the voice of the interviewees, and to bring attention to the situations in which we need to incorporate the voice of the subjects.

One of the greatest issues for these young people is their absence within existing literature, where they and their needs are often sidelined, remain unaddressed or discussed as an appendage to their mothers. By that I mean that instead it is their mothers (victims of rape) who are the primary focus of the current discourse. This has had the effect of marginalising the young adults who were born after the genocide, failing to recognise them as individual subjects with rights and needs of their own. Rwanda is a unique case as it was the first to establish rape as a weapon of genocide. This in turn positions the children, born as a result of rape-induced pregnancy, as being a crime larger than rape itself. Due to pregnancy’s unique role in creating, or in this case, as seen through the eyes of the perpetrators, corrupting the social fabric of a victim’s culture. The issue of the rights of children who were created within this context are absent from the debate, their status as bearers of rights, victims of genocide and other crimes are never alluded to directly.

The relationship between the adolescents of my study and their mothers is deeply nuanced, complicated and varying. Yet, it is doubtlessly one of the most important relationships and foundations for the young adults, who are at that stage in their life where they are seeking to understand and form their identity. Without support and disclosure from their mothers many of these young people were, and I am certain, are still struggling to understand and develop an informed sense of who they were. The reason as to why they have been treated differently from their peers and siblings, the actions that affected their mothers and resulted in their birth as well as the unknown identity of their father, are all issues that counsellors described as continuing to consume the thoughts, emotions and actions of these individuals born from rape.

Through my research it became evident that in order to support this particular group of young people born from rape their mothers must be included and supported by way of assisting the youths themselves. It is important to mark that this strategy should not be utilised in a way that will allow the mothers trauma to overshadow the needs and voice of the young adults.  If however, mobilised correctly, I believe a holistic approach towards young adults and their mothers could be utilised to bolster the voice, support, clarity and closeness in the lives of the young people.

The frequency and dominance of negative illustrations within existing literature conjures an image of inevitability, supposing that the relationship between these women and their children is doomed to failure and disrepair. This is an example of the divergence and dated nature of existing literature that needs to be checked and addressed, as many relationships within Rwanda have progressed.

The importance of including the mothers in the conversation with the adolescents of this study is illustrated by the fact that it is often the mothers alone who are able to identify their children as having been born of rape. It is the mothers who hold the key and are able to disclose the truth to their children, which may in turn allow them a chance to generate a true and informed identity and come to understand their past.

It was intimated to me that the overall benefit of knowing the truth exceeds the difficulty of its discovery. Many of these adolescents now want to know the truth. The insistence and strength of their voice has now come a long way since their infancy. The issue of disclosure is one that warrants its own larger discussion, yet it is also important to mention here when discussing the relationship between the adolescents and their mothers. Each one of the participants in my research recognised the issue of identity as a primary concern for these young people.

Several of the organisations advised that many of the young people had a greater love for their mothers after hearing what she went through. It was reported that many have looked for additional ways to support and care for their mothers. This intense love may generate a new aspect within the framework of these children’s vulnerabilities and complexities. As many of the adolescents are in a position whereby they situate their future hopes within the events of the past. Many counsellors report that these young people look to become lawyers or doctors so that they can persecute the perpetrators or give care to people like their mothers. This indicates that they are looking to make amends for past wrongs that affected their mothers. This cycle undoubtedly influences the perspective of the young individuals but is noticeably absent within the existing literature that principally emphasises the fractures between the children and their mothers.

To be able to know who they are and where they came from is one of the most profound desires affecting these adolesents or now young adults. It is a course of action that begins with disclosure and the process of coming to understand the events of their past and identity of their fathers. I want to quickly highlight how having been born as a result of rape, coupled with the patriarchal orientation of Rwanda opens the possibility that these adolescents could be viewed as belonging to the perpetrators of rape. I don’t have time to unpack this as I would like to, but feel it cannot go unsaid as this is one of the greatest walls that often stand between these individuals and the greater community.

It is important to remember that the subjects may have spent the greater part of twenty years asking questions about their father and where they came from. Several counsellors interviewed articulated that numerous adolescents had mentioned that the lack of understanding was consuming, crippling their ability to stabilise and cultivate their identity.

The issue of disclosure is one that cuts across a wide band of issues affecting the young people, ranging from child rights, to adolescence and family conflict. One counsellor raised the idea that it is better to know the truth when you are young rather than finding out when older, as the individual may find it harder to accept themselves, having had a larger period of time to allow some sense of identity to solidify. While it may be too late for the war babies of Rwanda it is an issue that they would be able to help clarify and discuss. By engaging them with the issue, it may help to orientate future discussions about the situation and aid future practitioners and scholars. Having to fracture and refashion this unsteady sense of self may also be a mechanism that traumatises the child, one which we may be able to avoid in future if we take the opportunity to listen and learn from the experts, the individuals themselves.

In interviews conducted between the counsellors and the young people themselves it was articulated that they are now better able to understand who they are and their identity, as a result of receiving answers to many questions that had troubled them.

Further points I want to briefly mention but sadly have not got the time to address as I would like are additional vulnerabilities such as lack of education, poverty, and health, in particular HIV/AIDS. At present, the impacts of these particular components in the lives of these adolescents remain under researched, with almost no contemporary discussion available within existing literature.

Additionally, the responsibility mothers have to their children is another issue which needs to be addressed and researched with the findings helping to support and orientate future discussions and action. These mothers have faced challenges which are both highly complex and personal and this must be acknowledged.

Finally, that the western-centric orientation of the rights based approach disconnects the subject themselves from the conversation, proving inaccessible for the subjects themselves. These adolscents and the organisations who work with them have been working towards achieving a level of prosperity and stability without engaging in rights rhetoric. No organisation placed international human rights at the core of their dealing with these youths.

That there is much to be learnt from the young adults directly and those who work with them is the dominant finding learnt throughout my research. I hope that my compact illustration of the current context in which these young individuals born of rape in Rwanda reside I has served as an engaging introduction to the current situation of these young people as revealed to me by those who work closest to them. My research looks to contribute to closing the gap between existing literature and the current situation of these individuals, showcasing that they have advanced beyond the current scope of the discussion surrounding them, living with needs and issues which extend far beyond the limits of this study, that require further research and action.

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