Female Perpetrators Of The Rwandan Genocide Essay



“The last decade has witnessed a profound transformation in the treatment of sexual violence in international law” (Balthazar, 43). The International Criminal Tribunal of Rwanda (ICTR), especially, has proved monumental in the incorporation of rape and sexual abuses into international law. The role of women, and perhaps even more importantly the role of sexuality and gender in genocide, has in the last two decades gained increased attention from the international community. Yet as the genocide discourse evolves to include the victimization processes that occur during genocide, particularly those relating to women, the overall gendered perception of women in genocide, not only as victims but as perpetrators, seems to be missing. Inspired by feminist ideology, Gentry and Solberg propose that women today are continuously being idolized as pristine and pure objects incapable of mass murder and genocidal behavior. Moreover they argue that convicted female perpetrators, instead of becoming a representation of female capabilities in the perpetration of genocide, are stripped of agency, reducing the severity of their actions to pure happenstance or the result of male manipulation. This paper seeks to address the role of women as perpetrators of genocide, with a specific focus on the Rwandan Genocide and with the aim of indulging questions concerning the agency of women in genocide. As such this paper argues that women can, under circumstances that threaten their own sense of self-worth and status, in much larger numbers than presumed or publicly acknowledged, be enticed by their own reasoning to engage in genocidal acts as active participants.

This paper seeks to address the role of women as perpetrators of genocide, with a specific focus on the Rwandan Genocide and with the aim of indulging questions concerning the agency of women in genocide.

Historical background

For centuries upon centuries Rwanda was a country of mainly three ethnic groups, the Hutu, the Tutsi, and the Twa. Interactions between the ethnic groups had been causal and highly intermixed, especially between the Hutu and Tutsi groups where inter-marriage was a normality. The distinction between Hutu and Tutsis, the perpetrators and victims of the Rwandan Genocide, respectively, had historically been their social status. Before colonization, the Tutsis had been considered of higher social status because they were pastoralists, which was a higher distinction than being a farmer, the occupation of the majority Hutus. However, “the categories were not fixed. After acquiring enough cattle, a Hutu could become Tutsi” (Straus, 20).

Upon colonizing Rwanda in 1898, the German and later the Belgian settlers effectively exacerbated the differences that had existed between the Tutsis and the Hutus, socially constructing the Tutsis as the superior race based on their social status and physical attributes. Through the means of indirect rule, which gave administrative power to the favored Tutsis, the colonizers created a social cleavage between the Tutsis and the Hutus, which portrayed the Tutsis as the direct antagonizers of the discrimination that had been directed towards the Hutus for decades. Resulting from a divide and rule strategy used by the European colonizers, “the Hutu, who were pauperized and deprived of all political power by the Belgian authorities, came to hate the Tutsis as racial enemies and foreign interlopers” (Melson, 329). However, it was the introduction of ID cards in the 1920’s that finally solidified the terms Hutu and Tutsi. Their roles were now rigid and fixed, and in nature highly racialized.

Moreover, in the post-World War II era, new ideas of human rights emerged with the establishment of the United Nations in 1947. The colonizing powers were under pressure as the ideas of democracy and nationalism and of the right to self-determination surfaced in the African colonies. The colonizing powers were also still reeling financially after the war and could no longer afford their colonies. Feeling increasingly uncomfortable with the inequality they had created and “under pressure from the newly established United Nations, Belgium introduced reforms that increased Hutu political representation” (Straus, 20).The Belgians were now eager to implement democracy in Rwanda and decided that the democratic state should be headed by the majority Hutus (although it should be noted that the impending Hutu revolution did not grow out of such democratic principles).

In 1957 “there emerged Hutu-led political movements demanding an end to Hutu subordination and the overthrow of Tutsi hegemony” (Melson, 330). The Hutu revolution of Nov. 1, 1959, encouraged by the Belgians, was externalized by a wave of violence throughout the country that eventually resulted in the abolishment of the Tutsi monarchy. Independence came to Rwanda in 1961, yet as Robert Melson argues, “the revolution of 1959 transformed Rwanda from a Belgian colony that had utilized a Tutsi elite as a subterfuge for Belgian power into a Hutu ethnocracy dressed up as a populist majoritarian democracy” (331), not necessarily a legitimate and representative democracy. One might argue that the political developments in Rwanda post-colonization fostered ethnic nationalism, which was eventually utilized by the Hutu hardliners during the course of the genocide in 1994.

Vilification and dehumanization

Genocidal societies sustain themselves on the willingness and efforts of the perpetrators—men as well as women. The vilification and dehumanization of the perceived threat is therefore a necessary step towards genocide because it enables the perpetrators, who are able to justify their actions based on the stereotypes mass-produced by propaganda. In Rwanda the Tutsis were vilified as threats to the state and as accomplices of the Rwandan patriotic front (RPF), which allegedly wished to create a Tutsi state similar to the one that had existed prior to the Hutu revolution of 1959. The RPF was comprised of Tutsi refugees who in 1959 had fled Rwanda to the neighboring countries of Burundi and Uganda, and again in 1961 as George Kayibanda seized power and spurred a new wave of violence. The vilification of the Tutsis was therefore closely linked to the RPF. The radio, which was the most important means of propaganda in Rwanda, also made it “ appear as if all Tutsi were in league with the RPF invaders whose main goal was to kill or subjugate the Hutu” (Melson, 335). Hence a mentality of “kill or be killed” arose among the Hutus, a “security dilemma”: Writes Strauss, “The central idea is that in the context of anarchy or war, individuals will attack first to avoid being attacked” (38).The violence intensified with the outbreak of a civil war between the Hutu hardliners (CDR) and the RPF, as the latter invaded Rwanda in October 1990. Every Tutsi was now being viewed as an RPF sympathizer and violent massacres directed towards the Tutsis broke out all over Rwanda. The Tutsis were systematically portrayed as cockroaches, which again reveals the process of dehumanization. Tutsis were a threat to Hutu society and the “Hutu Ten Commandments”—a document that essentially confirms the overt process of vilification of the Tutsis in the 1990’s—highlighted that “…their [the Tutsis’] only goal is ethnic superiority.”

In the Rwandan case, we witnessed an extraordinary mobilization of willing perpetrators and a state that “turned what could have ended as limited ethnic killing and crowd violence into genocide” (Straus, 201). The Rwandan Genocide began on April 6, 1994, only hours after the plane carrying Rwanda’s Hutu President Habyarimana and the president of Burundi was shot down. Hutu hardliners immediately started broadcasting the names and locations of important Tutsi officials, and hundreds of thousands obeyed orders by immediately starting to kill every Tutsi they came across.The prompt and immediate response to the directives given by the Hutu hardliners only testifies to the massive support that can be generated under high-pressure circumstances and how even normal people can become murderers. During times of political and social upheaval, the role of women is often neglected; yet during the Rwandan Genocide, women participated in large numbers. At the time of the genocide women worked as the main architects of the violence and as individual killers in small communities, they denounced victims and looted victim’s homes as well as their bodies, and less frequently, women killed directly, with a variety of modern and more traditional weaponry (Adler, 212). Statistics show that approximately 3,000 women, representing about 3.4 percent of the Rwandan prison population, participated in the Rwandan Genocide (212).

The importance of agency

Our understanding of modern genocide, especially as it relates to the motivations and pull-factors that enable genocide, would not be complete without an open-minded examination of the role of women as enablers and actors of genocide. Women have throughout history been appropriated the title of victim and have been the ultimate bearers of the burden of genocide. Rarely have they been “granted” the title of perpetrator. Even more important is the fact that when women are called out on having participated in genocide, their actions are viewed and understood as unnatural and most likely a result of male manipulation. Thus we witness a discourse wherein women are notallocated free will in their decision to perpetuate and contribute to genocide. It is crucial for our understanding of genocide that we understand that women can be, and in the specific case of Rwanda that they were, active agents of horrific mass killings and mass rapes. The continued dismissal of women from our understanding of genocide will invariably produce a skewed image of the psychology behind genocide.


David Moshman in his chapter “Theories of Self and Theories of Selves: Identity in Rwanda” articulates some concepts that can be used to understand why Hutu women, alongside Hutu men, felt that the Tutsis needed to be eradicated, even if it had to happen by their own hands. Moshman proposes that identity can be used as a guiding concept in our attempt to understand the psychological factors that enable genocide. While identity is in part shaped by our personal beliefs and morals, it is also to a large extent externally induced by our society. In the case of Rwanda, the understanding of “Hutu” and “Tutsi” as not only ethnically different but also racially different created an atmosphere of animosity in Rwanda. Moshman argues that identity helps one understand oneself in relation to others, that it is an abstract manifestation of the values and beliefs that inevitably guides one’s actions. He writes, “an identity, then, is not only a theory of self but a commitment to be a particular kind of person” (Moshman, 194-95).

In Rwanda, we see how identity and the intrinsic commitment to one’s ethnicity in many ways created the leeway for extremist ideologies. Throughout colonial times, with the Belgian authorities spearheading the unjustifiable ethnic categorizations of Tutsis and Hutus, the Rwandan population became conditioned to believe that there was an inherent difference between the two groups (Moshman, 192). This attack on Hutu identity—the attack against the Hutus’ perceived sense of self—eventually enabled genocide, not only for men but also women.

Moshman further argues that while some identities are defined by group or community dynamics, certain identities are defined by the presence and existence of a common enemy. A heightened sense of community can therefore be spurred by a mutual hate for the “other.” In the case of Rwanda this manifested itself in the Hutus rallying themselves around extremist ideologies that sought to not only belittle the Tutsis but also destroy them for good (Moshman, 200).

Women in Rwanda had, along with the men, been equally exposed to the notion of “them” versus “us.” The role of the Hutu woman and her understanding of herself as a vital component of her ethnic group should therefore not be underestimated. As Lisa Sharlach writes, “in 1994 Rwanda, a woman’s loyalty to her ethnic group almost always overrode any sense of sisterhood to women of the other ethnic groups (Sharlach, 388). An extreme case is that of Pauline Nyiramasuhuko, the former Rwanda Minister of Family and Women’s Affairs. Nyiramasuhuko was the first woman to be charged with genocide, for the perpetration of genocidal rape. Notoriously known by her first name, Pauline was charged with two charges of rape, one as a crime against humanity and the other as a violation of the Geneva Convention on War Crimes. According to the indictment, Nyiramasuhuko set up roadblocks in order to identify, kidnap, rape, and kill members of the Tutsi population. It notes that she used her influence to incite those under her authority to commit acts of rape during the genocide (Balthazar, 47).

Pauline had felt a strong hatred towards the Tutsis, and especially Tutsi women. The notion of Pauline inciting rape as a method of destruction reveals how rape was used, not only by men, but in this case by a woman in power, as a way of oppressing and humiliating the Tutsi woman. The latter had, from the time of colonization, been “constructed as more beautiful than the Hutu woman in colonial discourse (…) thus something to be coveted and desired” (Baines, 488). Rape was thereby implemented by Pauline as a way of damaging the Tutsi woman’s spirit as well as her will to reproduce. Rape has become a weapon of war in recent years, an efficient method to shame a community by attacking the population’s reproductive abilities (Nowrojee, 1). Pauline thus became a very influential person within the apparatus that orchestrated the genocide; moreover she was personally responsible for the use of rape as a weapon of war within the genocide. To ignore the wrongdoings of women such as Pauline would be to provide an inaccurate image of the mechanisms that led to such a “successful” genocide.


In their book Mothers, Monsters, Whores: Women’s Violence in Global Politics, Gentry and Sjoberg argue that women today have been stripped of their agency when it comes to perpetuating genocide and mass murder. Women are portrayed and idealized as “fragile, removed from reality, and in need of protection in a way that the protector receives substantial honour of success.” This idea of a woman as a “beautiful soul,” a concept produced by Hegel via Elshtein, portrays women as incapable of violent behavior, “expected to be against war and violence, but cooperate with wars fought to protect her innocence and virginity” (Gentry and Sjoberg, 4). This system of belief, which grants her male counterpart both agency and will in the perpetration of violence, fails to include women as equally capable administrators and perpetrators of evil. The aim of this paper, however, is not to argue that women have been involved in genocide to the same extent as men, but rather to highlight how a number of women have consciously and deliberately engaged in war and genocide. The problem with today’s discourse is that, while there are fundamental differences in the way genocide itself has been defined as a concept by various scholars, genocide as it pertains to gender and gender ideologies remains even less understood. Few studies, apart from the book Rwanda: Not So Innocent—When Women Become Killers by Yvonne Leggat-Smith (1995), which was published only one year after the genocide, have specifically indulged in questions regarding women’s participation in the Rwandan Genocide. Most of the literature on women and warfare, and women and genocide, analyze women’s role from a victim-centered perspective. Gentry and Sjoberg strongly oppose this victimization and in their book recognize that most acknowledgements of women’s participation are accompanied by gendered assumptions about how they came to be involved and emphasize the singularity of particular women as participants (147).

However, as will become clear during the case study on Pauline Nyiramashuko, as well as from the reflections by Rwandan women currently imprisoned in Rwanda for complicity in the genocide, each woman has her own story. Reducing their actions by proposing the singularity of these women is not only a faulty assumption but a highly dangerous one.

The woman who ordered rape

Pauline Nyiramasuhuku was Rwanda’s Minister of Family and Women’s Affairs in the years leading up to the Rwandan Genocide in 1994. Her role as a minister is something to take note of as women in post-colonial Rwanda were extremely underrepresented in government. But today, Pauline stands charged with genocide and crimes against humanity. Known by some as the Minister of Rape, she has become the image of what women involved in genocide are capable of doing. Rape was used by Pauline as a way of degrading the Tutsi women. Although Pauline still claims her own innocence, a number of people who had met with her in the years prior to the genocide have said that she clearly viewed the Tutsi population as a burden, and that her “antipathy toward Tutsis was chillingly clear” (Landesman, 8). Yet, the fact that Pauline, as a minister of family and women’s affairs, would order soldiers and even her own son to rape women before killing them is astonishing. As a woman herself, one would think that she would actively try to stop rape from occurring, not perpetuate it. At the time of the genocide, however, rape had become a way for the Hutus to not only shame Tutsi women, but also to make sure that their reproductive means were destroyed as well—thus prolonging the reach of the genocide.

It seems that Pauline’s “capacity for pity and compassion, and her professional duty to shield the powerless, deserted her… Pauline did possess humanity, but it was in short supply, and she reserved it for her only son, Shalom, whom she had helped turn into a rapist and a killer” (Landsman). Pauline was in many ways obsessed with the act of degrading women. In the beginning, Tutsi women were left alone, and the Hutus only killed the boys and men. Towards the end of the genocide, after most of the male population had been destroyed and killed, the Hutus turned to the girls and women, implementing rape “based on the idea that Tutsi women reproduced the alien other” (Baines, 487). Rape as a weapon of war became a way for the perpetrator to effectively control the population—the woman herself, her husband, her family, and the entire community. Not only would the woman be left to live her life remembering this traumatic experience, but she would have experienced losing control over one of the most basic and elementary aspects of herself, her sexuality. The aim of rape was to ensure that, if the woman wasn’t killed, she would at least “die of sadness” (Nowrojee, 1).

One telling incident of Pauline’s callousness occurred in Butare, Rwanda. After having rounded up the people of the city in a stadium, under the pretense that aid workers from the Red Cross had come to save them, Pauline ordered her soldiers to kill everyone present; women, specifically, were targeted to be raped. One of the soldiers, Emmanuel Nsabimana, has confessed that Pauline gave the rape order. She told the men, right before they were about to burn the women with gasoline (another of Pauline’s orders), “Why don’t you rape them before you kill them?” (Landesman, 2). The way in which these women were raped was also horrific, as “thousands of women were individually raped, gang-raped, raped with objects such as sharpened sticks or gun barrels, held in sexual slavery (either collectively or through forced marriage) or sexually mutilated” (Nowrojee, 1). There is not much documentation on why Pauline was so eager to destroy Tutsi women through the act of rape, but her motives can generally be understood as being the result of centuries of Tutsi woman being viewed as sexually superior to their Hutu counterparts. While Tutsi men were seen as being responsible for the unemployment rates among the Hutus, as the genocide unfolded, educated Tutsi women became targets for discrimination. Women in the capital Kigali were especially “accused of ‘tricking’ employers into hiring them” (Baines, 484).

Sexuality and gender perceptions, as we can see from the experiences in Rwanda, can be powerful. Not only is gender important when it comes to providing a complete picture of what motivated and sustained the genocide, but by incorporating gender into the discourse we are better able to understand how gender can be exploited during genocide.

Confessions from ordinary women

In “A Calamity in the Neighbourhood: Women’s Participation in the Rwandan Genocide,” Adler, Loyle, and Globerman present us with their research on female perpetrators accused of genocide in Rwanda. One of the aims of their research was to “develop a theoretical model explaining why rank-and-file Rwandan women assaulted or murdered targeted victims during the 1994 Rwandan Genocide” (211). Their research was interview based and consisted of a sample of 10 women from a wide variety of socio-economic backgrounds who were imprisoned—having either confessed or being accused and convicted—for their actions during the time of the genocide. They were charged for crimes ranging from assault to murder, and included adolescents to middle-aged women (213). Five were married and five were single; five had lived in urban areas and five in rural areas; nine were Hutu, while one actually characterized herself as being Tutsi; and all had 1-16 years of education. Moreover, most of them worked as farmers, although two had been students (215). The women that actually killed with their own hands were a minority, however. In fact, less than 1 in 10 of the Interhamwe—the Hutu militia—were women.

The women in the study pointed out four very specific reasons why they became involved in the genocide, including confusion and ambivalence about events on the ground; fear of a new social order; disaster mentality; and consonance and dissonance with gender roles. What is interesting with these descriptions is that they all suggest that the women’s behavior was a result of circumstances out of their control. The only point that actually attributed the women with some sort of personal control is that on consonance and dissonance with gender-expectations, which explains how women “while remaining within traditional gender norms…nevertheless lent support to the eliminationist Hutu Power agenda by egging on attack groups, informing on concealed victim, and pillaging property from the dead” (Adler, Loyle, and Globerman. 222).

The women interviewed by the authors offered different explanations. Some were known for pushing socially acceptable boundaries even before the genocide, and thus their actions were not wholly induced by the atmosphere of animosity in the spring months of 1994; rather, there seem to have been aspects of their personalities that allowed them to do the things they did. One woman explained that “there were some bad-mannered girls whose friends were Interahamwe. They must have walked together with their Interahamwe boyfriends and thus saw their deeds. When you keep on exchanging ideas with someone, you may find room within yourself to accommodate those ideas” (Adler, Loyle, and Globerman, 213).

Some of the other study participants said they feared they would be considered Tutsi sympathizers. This fear was not irrational, as Hutus also killed moderate Hutus accused of sympathizing with the Tutsis. One woman revealed: “There came a time when [my husband] tried to sensitize me [to Hutu Power ideology]… I then thought, “this is going to be difficult for me,” but he told me that it was obligatory… Personally I never was on their side, but my husband once said to me, “If you don’t take part, I will kill you myself.” So I agreed to participate” (Adler, Loyle, and Globerman, 223).

It’s important to note, then, that a number of these women participated in the genocide not only because of a personal conviction that Tutsis were evil, but out of fear from threats by men. Thus we see that, just as women were able to reject the gendered perception of who could and could not participate in the killings, so too did men. Women perpetrators, interestingly, were expected to take part in the genocide while simultaneously living up to the expectations that follow being a woman. Traditional gender roles are thus used to fulfill a need for normalcy during times of turmoil. One woman interviewed recalled: “Although they trained and sensitized me, I was never interested… I was trained for one month and then stopped. They then asked me, “Have you mastered it?” And I said, “Yes.” I went home and continued my life, but when the war broke out they gave me a rifle and ordered me to kill people…” The interviewer then asks, “Why did you stop the weapons training sessions?” She responds, “I stopped because I had to take care of my children. I left them home alone and [the Interahamwe] wanted me to train into the evening hours… The kids had nobody to feed them, so I decided to be there for my children (Adler, Loyle and Globerman, 224). These women, who had been trained by the Interahamwe, carried a sense of double duty: Not only did they join the forces, but they also carried out their loyalties to their children, husbands, and extended community.

Studies on the topic of female perpetrators in the Rwandan Genocide have come to the conclusion that there are many different reasons why women decided to kill in 1994. Changing political structures after decolonization, increased Hutu participation in politics, and the creation of a multi-party political system all helped create an atmosphere in Rwanda that, as we see, also had an impact on traditional gender roles. However, it’s important to note that despite the fact that more women participated in the Rwandan Genocide than in other genocides, the number still remains low compared to their male counterpoints.


Research and literature on the role of women as perpetrators and enablers of genocide remain staggeringly meager. However, as the evidence from the Rwandan Genocide suggests, women, in much larger numbers than presumed, can become active and ruthless agents of genocide—and their role and motivations therefore demands great attention. While scholars hitherto have been more concerned, and rightfully so, with the power dynamics between the victims and perpetrators of genocide, studies show that there also exists a need for a renewed focus on the relationship between gender and genocide, specifically the role of gender expectations within the context of genocide. I would strongly argue that a deeper understanding of such relationships can help us understand the various push-and-pull factors that exist among genocide perpetrators, not only on a societal level, but on an individual, as well as gender-specific level. Genocide has never been, nor will it ever be, a static concept, and for this reason it is important that scholars, as well as communities that choose to study genocide, safeguard themselves and their assumptions from becoming overly influenced by societies gendered perceptions of who can and who can’t commit mass-murder. As witnessed in the Rwandan case, when women, as well as men, are faced with factors that strain and threaten their own perceptions of themselves, their status, and their identity, it can have fatal consequences not only for them but for their entire community. Genocide and mass-murder as such does not occur in a vacuum, and it is therefore imperative that we further our study on the role of women in genocide, as well as on the corollary societal effects of social and political turmoil. Only then, I believe, will we successfully be able to uncover the psychology that turns seemingly ordinary women into cold-blooded genocidaires in a matter of months.

Works Cited

Adler, N Reva, Cyanne E Loyole and Judith Globerman. “A Calamity in the Neighborhood: Women’s Participation in the Rwandan Genocide,” Genocide Studies and Prevention 2 (2007): 209-34.

Balthazar, Sita. “Gender Crimes and the International Criminal Tribunal,” Gonzaga Journal of International Law 10, no. 1 (2006): 43-48.

Baines, Erin K. “Body Politics and the Rwandan Crisis,” Third World Quarterly 24 (2003): 479-93.

Gentry, Caron E and Laura Sjoberg. Mothers, Monsters, Whores: Women’s Violence in Global Politics. London: Zed Books, 2007.

Melson, Robert. “Modern Genocide in Rwanda,” The Spector of Genocide: Mass Murder in Historical Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Moghalu, Kingsley Chiedu. “International Humanitarian Law from Nuremberg to Rome: The Weighty Precedents of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda,” Pace International Law Review 14, no. (2002): 273-305.

Nowrojee, Binaifer. “Shattered lives: sexual violence during the Rwandan genocide and its aftermath,” Human Rights Watch, 1996.

Sharlach, Lisa. “Gender and genocide in Rwanda: Women as agents and objects of Genocide,” Journal of Genocide Research 1, no. 3 (1999): 387-99.

Strauss, Scott. The Order of Genocide: Race, Power, and War in Rwanda. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006.

Moshman, David. “Theories of Self and Theories of Selves: Identity in Rwanda,” Changing Conceptions of Psychological Life, edited by Cynthia Lightfoot, Christopher A. LaLonde, and Michael J. Chandler. Psychology Press, 2004: 183-205.


Genocide has been talked about for decades upon decades ever since the first action took place. “The explosion of public interest in genocide in the 1990s, and the concomitant growth of genocide studies as an academic field, has spawned a profusion of humanistic and social-scientific studies, joined by memoirs and oral histories” (Jones, 15). Scholars have mainly been trying to pinpoint a reason, a blame and most importantly one definition to fit the past actions of these events. A professor quoted in Jones’s book came up with a belief for his definition of genocide: “Genocide is understood to be the state-sponsored systematic mass murder of innocent and helpless men, women, and children denoted by a particular ethnoreligious identity, having the purpose of eradicating this group from a particular territory” (Jones, 19). This very definition points me in the direction of why the topic I am writing about gives a new perspective, one that no one believed to be true: women perpetrators in genocide. It was never thought of until recently that women would be involved in genocidal acts, voluntarily participating in crime instead of the ones being victimized. The main questions being answered in this paper will be:

  • Were women in fact posing as perpetrators in certain acts of genocide?
  • How did they influence the crimes taking place in these specific events:
    • Rwandan Genocide
    • Holocaust Under Hitler’s Regime

Rwandan Background:

Many of my examples come from the genocide that took place in Rwanda. I thought it would be helpful to set up a little bit of information about the background so it is easier to understand the basis of women and what happened in this country.

It is no secret that the result of the Rwandan genocide left mostly Tutsis dead and the Hutus with the blame. There was always a large economic disagreement between these two ethnic groups living in Rwanda. Although their similarities of tradition, language and settlement grew closer, the hatred of each other set them far apart. The thing that sparked the fire of this tragedy were the identity cards enforced by the Belgian colonists when they arrived in Rwanda in 1916. These cards classified the people by their ethnicity, resulting with the Tutsis coming out on top of the pyramid, the more superior group. The Tutsis were treated with more respect and were served with better job opportunities than the Hutus. The rage of the Hutu people gradually towered because of their lacking of fair treatment from the Belgian colonists. The rage soon turned into riots between the Hutu and the Tutsi in 1959, leading to the death of more than 20,000 Tutsi people. In 1962 Belgium granted Rwanda their independence and the Hutus took over as leaders. Economically, the country starting taking a turn for the worse. Tutsi refugees in Uganda began the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) led by a man named Kagame, in hopes to overthrow the president of that time, Habyarimana, a Hutu and return home. After many attacks took place, a peace treaty was signed by the RPF and Habyarimana in 1993. Although the peace was instated, this would not resolve the massacre soon to begin. A year later, Habyarimana’s plane was shot down and all hell broke loose. Starting in Kigali, the largest city in Rwanda, the presidential guard ordered that the political people of the Tutsis were murdered and the mass murders of their Tutsis and some Hutus took place. At this point, everyone including innocent civilians were involved in the murders. There were thousands of people acting in this so called genocide, it was hard to tell who the main majority of gender actually was. As a result, nearly 800,000 were murdered over the course of 100 days.

Women in Genocide


Women are traditionally talked about as victims in the acts of genocide. Because of this, we lack an understanding for the actives ways women take place in these crimes. The basic thoughts of women during the Rwandan genocide are linked to rape and distortion. Challenging the stereotype of gender in genocides such as the one in Rwanda opens our eyes and broadens our perspectives in understanding real roles of women during conflict.

This photograph taken from sources at AllAfrica.com, an African news website, shows a U.S. Official extraditing a Rwandan women convicted for her actions in the Rwandan genocide. Marie-Claire Mukeshimana was “convicted in absentiaby a court in her country for her role in the 1994 genocide” (Nathan). This woman is 43 years old and was sentenced to 19 years in prison for the killing of a handful of children and she marks the second women to be released back to Kigali. She tried to enter the United States in 2010 at the Detroit airport but was denied entry and held in custody ever since. This women is one of hundreds that were convicted after the Rwandan genocide and sentenced to prison for multiple murders.Before they found Mukeshimana and took her back to Kigali, she had left in 2005 and had previously been working at World Vision. The interesting thing about the fact that she worked at World Vision is that this company is a Christian based humanitarian one that helps the lives of children and families with poverty. Today, the United States is partnered with this organization to help sponsor children in Rwanda and give them a better life. We send them seeds for farming, school supplies for education and help build water tanks for fresh water. These women said to be perpetrators in the Rwandan genocide are not all bad. After the genocide ended, this woman was working for such a company that ironically helps children.

To me, this photograph stands out because it really makes me look at this Rwandan women very closely. She looks like a normal citizen, dressed in her everyday clothes, yet she is considered to be a criminal. Rwandan women just like her, who appear to be completely harmless looking, are being feared for their crimes. Which leads me to this…in order to understand why these women are being accused of such murders, as well as men, we have to look further into the gender relations of pre-genocide in Rwanda. Rwandan women were often look at as the inferior to men. They were not considered to be equal to their spouses and their culture believes that “a woman’s only wealth is a man” (Hogg 71). One of the only things women were cherished for was their ability to reproduce for their family. They were strictly held to their few responsibilities such as cleaning and up-keeping the house, entertaining visitors and educating their children. Young girls growing up are taught to be respectful, listen to their elders and to be very polite. One might question why women who are raised to be such obedient people could turn out to be perpetrators in a mass genocide. One of the many motivations, leading to something that is often behind the scenes and not thought about is violence. Many Rwandan women growing up amount to physical violence as a punishment and this is considered to be a traditional thing in their culture. Since women are so inferior to men, they are supposed to just accept these acts of violence. This could be of many reasons why women lashed out in violence in the Rwandan genocide.


This is a photograph taken by Jonotha Torgovnik, previous combat photographer in the Israeli Army, is of a woman embracing her daughter who was born after she was raped during the Rwandan genocide. The woman, Joseline Ingabire gave birth to both of her daughters near the end of the Rwandan conflict. Her husband was murdered in front of her and she was repeatedly raped, even while pregnant. The beauty of this photograph is striking but the pain behind their eyes goes without saying. Violence and rape is one of the motivations these Rwandan women had to take part in murders of the genocide.

Another motivation talked about behind women perpetrators in the Rwandan genocide is fear. Many of these women claim that they were forced by the soldiers to commit these acts of genocide. They were forced to reveal hiding spots of the Tutsis seen during this time of war. Women were very desperate in a sense that they feared what other people would do to their families and had absolutely no trust in relatives and others they thought they once could trust. There is a story of a women who poisoned and murdered her own four Tutsi children on their father’s behalf and felt that by killing them in a softer way, dodging the machete of the solider, would be a better way for them to die. The desperateness of these women were high in rate, and the tension between these two ethnic groups is so strong that the relatives of this women who happened to be Hutu, refused to hide their own flesh and blood.

The aftermath and most importantly the responsibility of the Rwandan genocide continues to be talked about. Women known as “ordinary” were blamed for acts of genocide and other groups of women known as “intellectuals” were blamed as well. The ordinary women were the ones who physically committed the crimes and the intellectuals were the masterminds behind them. Women with leadership positions in Rwanda were convicted of (Category 1) crimes, carrying out crimes against humanity and often received the death penalty. Ordinary women were convicted with Category 2 or 3 crimes and were left in the hands of the gacaca, which meant they could only receive a maximum sentence of the death penalty. Motivations such as violence, fear, and being politically involved are highly looked at as reasons why women perpetrators participated in the Rwandan genocide.


Members of the SS Helferinnen (female auxiliaries) arrive in Solahuette, an SS retreat near Auschwitz. This photo was taken from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

The SS Helferinnen are also known as the female guards in the Nazi concentration camps. A large group, about 3,700 out of 55,00 of these guards in the camps were female. Most of these women were between the ages of 17 and 30.

After the Holocaust ended, many of these SS Helferinnen women were captured and held at an intermittent camp in Recklinghausen, Germany. Just a little under 1,000 women were held at these camps and the U.S. Army investigated the crimes they had committed while serving in the war. Most of these women were later released because it was decided that the male SS were the top priority in convicting for committing acts of murder during this time. Only a handful of SS women were tried for their crimes compared to the SS men. Males still held the power over these women even if they indeed had the same rank and committed the same crimes during the same war. It goes to show that most of the time, women are let free because motivations and such are found, backing them up in believing that it was not in fact them, but something that came over them that made them commit such acts of violence.


This photo is of a women by the name of Irma Grese. She worked at the Nazi  concentration camps at Ravensbruck and Auschwitz. She also was the warden of a specific concentration camp in northwestern Germany, Bergen-Belsen. Grese was later on convicted for her crimes against humanity at the Belsen Trial and pleaded not guilty. Survivors of the Belsen camp had the chance to testify against her. They brought up all of the crimes she was known for while they were at the camp. These crimes included beating prisoners, shooting prisoners, putting prisoners in gas chambers and letting her trained dogs hurt prisoners. It has been said that she tortured these people both physically and emotionally. Grese thoroughly enjoyed shooting prisoners in cold blood and beating up women.  Later she was found guilty and sentenced to death. She was known as The Angel of Death at the camps because of her cruelity. She carried around a whip and pistol everywhere she went. Irma Grese is definitely considered one of the most famous women perpetrators of the Nazi Regime because of her cruel treatment and murders of the prisoners she was keeping.

Connecting Irma Grese’s story to my theories of motivations in women perpetrators of war, her childhood fits right into one of the reasons women bring out a bad side during rough times. As a child, she witnessed the suicide of her mother and ever since this had a great effect on her. One of the reasons she received pleasure out of physically beating women in the camps was because she had such anger and frustration towards her mother taking her own life. “Daniel Patrick Brown, the leading expert of Grese, asserted that she was, already by the age of 9 or 10, deeply influenced by Hitler and the Nazis” (Sarti 109). She was growing up during the time of propaganda and this influenced her ideology greatly. Nazi power was thriving in all areas of Germany and their messages being sent throughout the country stuck with her. Because of these things, she was forced to remain strong and since the suicide of her mother, crime was something that emerged in her doings.

Tying Things Together:

Based on these stories and facts provided, we can not conclude that all of these women were evil based on the acts of crime they committed. Although some were bad people, there were many motivations and reasons behind the doings of their actions. Not to say that what these women did were right, but women perpetrators in genocide were sometimes overlooked. These women, no matter how cruel the crime they committed was, they were not held as nearly as much accountable as men were during this time. The way the world works today almost still feels like this. When women commit a crime, people start to wonder if some crazy motivation or excuse took over her causing her to commit something horrible. When looking at men who commit a crime, people tend to believe they are just a horrible person, without thinking of reasons to back them up. Motivations that I spoke of such as fear, anger and violence help us understand why some of the women considered to be perpetrators of these genocides did what they did. Even when the wars were all said and done, women were not convicted as much as women were for their crimes. Men were the ones sought out and looked for. That aside, women like Irma Grese and Marie-Claire did commit acts of violence in their time of war and they were severely punished for doing so. Just because men are held most accountable for crimes, doesn’t mean that women are not capable of committing the same crimes. Maybe people don’t look at women as doing wrong, but women are just as motivated to commit acts of violence towards other and these women are just a few of the many who weren’t afraid to hold such power.

Works Cited

Hogg, Nicole. “Women’s participation in the Rwandan genocide: mothers or monsters?.” International Review of the Red Cross Vol. 92 (2010): pg. 69-102. Web. 15 April 2012.

Jones, Adam. Genocide: A Comprehensive Introduction, Second Edition. New York: Routledge, 2011. Print.

Sarti, Wendy Adele-Marie. Women+Nazis: Perpetrators of Genocide and Other Crimes During Hitler’s Regime, 1933-1945. Palo Alto, California, Academic Press, LLC, 2012. Print.

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