Twenty years ago today, violence erupted in the Rwandan capital of Kigali—the start of one of the most massive, brutal genocides in recent history.
The violence was sparked by the death of President Juvenal Habyarimana, whose plane had been shot down the day before. Attackers armed with machetes and guns targeted the country’s minority Tutsi population and moderate Hutus, and the violence spread rapidly. By the time it came to end, a mere 100 days later, more than 1 million people had been killed.
More than a quarter of a million women and girls may have been raped during the genocide
The genocide was defined as much by extreme sexual violence as it was by the loss of life. Rape, forced marriages and sexual slavery became an alarmingly common occurrence. Although exact numbers will never be known, estimates suggest that more than a quarter of a million women and girls may have been raped during the genocide. Many of these women were subsequently killed or died from their injuries, but others survived and found themselves facing severe health issues. High numbers of unintended pregnancies (and the related health risks, including those associated with unsafe abortions) and HIV infections were reported following genocide, which many believe may be attributed to high rates of sexual violence.
Though the statistics from Rwanda are staggering, violence against women during times of conflict is not a new or unique phenomenon; references of “rape and pillage” during war can be found throughout history. But the atrocities committed in Rwanda, and the equally abhorrent use of sexual violence in the conflict in the former Yugoslavia around the same time, required a change in the international community’s narrative.
Rape could no longer just be overlooked as the “spoils of war,” or an unfortunate, but inevitable side effect. The events of the early 1990s made it clear that conflict increases risks of violence against women and that rape can be an explicit and systematic weapon of war with long-term impacts for both individuals and entire communities. In the 20 years since Rwanda, the international community and individual countries have begun to embrace this changing narrative and are looking for ways to better prevent and respond to sexual violence against women during conflicts and other humanitarian disasters.
For its part, the U.S, State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration has contributed more than $86 million to prevent and respond to gender-based violence (GBV) in humanitarian settings since 2000. It has also incorporated vital sexual and reproductive health services for women and girls into humanitarian relief and assistance efforts. Building off of these efforts, the U.S. announced its newest initiative Safe from the Start in September 2013. Safe from the Start seeks to “…reduce the incidence of GBV, while ensuring quality services for survivors from the onset of an emergency…”.
This year, the U.S. has also taken over leadership of the Call to Action on Protecting Girls and Women in Emergencies, an effort originally launched by the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DfID) at a high-level event in London last year. Donors, states, U.N. agencies, NGOs, and other stakeholders at the event and around the world committed themselves to working to prevent and respond to GBV in humanitarian settings. PAI was among the organizations that supported the 2013 Call to Action, which included ensuring survivors have access to life-saving, comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services. The U.S. will host a follow-up Call to Action in New York City this fall.
As we look back and remember the atrocities of 1994, it’s important to recognize the progress that’s been made since then to address sexual violence in conflict. But as women today face sexual violence in Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and other conflicts, there’s clearly more work to be done to provide survivors with the care they deserve, and to prevent sexual violence before it happens.