Academic journal article Fordham Urban Law Journal

Mother of Atrocities: Pauline Nyiramasuhuko's Role in the Rwandan Genocide

Academic journal article Fordham Urban Law Journal

Mother of Atrocities: Pauline Nyiramasuhuko's Role in the Rwandan Genocide

Article excerpt

In the courtroom she prefers "plain high-necked dresses that show off a gleaming gold crucifix she usually wears." (1) "[H]er appearance in court suggest[s] a school teacher." (2) "With her hair pulled neatly back, her heavy glasses beside her on the table, she looks more like someone's dear great aunt than what she is alleged to be: a high-level organizer of Rwanda's 1994 genocide who authorized the rape and murder of countless men and women." (3)

As Pauline Nyiramasuhuko stands trial before the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) (4) for crimes against humanity and genocide, (5) crimes shocking in their depravity, the press seems more fixated on her gender than the significance of her crimes and her prosecution. (6) The press asks: how could a woman, a mother, a female that looks so feminine commit such atrocities? (7) To ask the question is to assume that women are not capable of committing acts of violence and depravity such as rape, mass murder, and genocide. In reality, "[i]t is probably the case that women's peacefulness is as mythical as men's violence." (8) Women throughout history have equaled their male counterparts in their cruelty and in their willingness to plan, orchestrate, and participate in mass atrocities. (9) Women, girls, and mothers also willingly and enthusiastically played important roles in the Rwandan genocide. (10) As a female perpetrator of mass violence, Pauline is not an anomaly.

Those who view Pauline's actions during the genocide as somehow inexplicable because of her gender engage in the stereotypical thinking that perpetuates the special victimization of women. History demonstrates that women suffer especially heinous sexual violence in almost every armed conflict. (11) Women become such targets for many reasons, all connected to their otherness, their difference from the patriarchy that perpetuates the conflict. (12) As one writer noted, "if ... war is the continuation of politics by other means, it has been constructed out of hostility towards the female 'other.'" (13)

The Tutsi women of Rwanda, like women in countless other conflicts, were sexually violated to denigrate Tutsi men or the Tutsi race, to attack their purity, and to serve as a warrior's reward. (14) To successfully carry out a campaign of sexual terror, the perpetrators had to embrace the myth that sees women as merely an extension of the Tutsi man, merely a tool for the troops' pleasure, or merely a vessel of procreation. (15) This myth also sees rape as a defilement of the woman and her family, her man, and often her entire ethnic group. (16) And because of adherence to this myth, crimes specifically targeting women during armed conflict are rarely prosecuted. (17)

Pauline's case challenges the other side of the myth: that women, by their nature, are incapable of being warriors--somehow their roles as women and mothers prohibit them from planning or participating in depraved violence. (18) Pauline's case says more about our continued resistance to view women as equals than it says about her uniqueness among her female peers. Because we continue to view women as less capable than men, as less worthy than men, and as confined to the roles of sexual objects or mothers, women continue to bear the painful scars of sexual violence in times of conflict. Pauline's case will hopefully prove to the world, once again, that women are equally human, even in their capacity for violence. When women begin to be seen as equals, sexual violence against women may lose its purpose. And though we may not live to see that day, we may live to see the day when crimes against women are treated as crimes against humanity, because women are equal participants in humanity.

The ICTR, where Pauline currently sits on trial for her crimes, has made significant progress towards ending impunity for the crimes carried out almost exclusively against Rwandan women. (19) The next step toward ending impunity for crimes of sexual violence during conflict is to demystify the nature of women. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.