Women Drove Transitional Justice In Rwanda, Says Expert

Women Drove Transitional Justice In Rwanda, Says Expert©UN
Women fetch water from a well in Yida refugee camp, South Sudan, March 12, 2013
3 min 20Approximate reading time

Women were among the main victims of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. They saw husbands and family killed. Tutsi women were raped, often infected with HIV and some had to bear the unwanted children of their rapists. Hutu women became refugees and saw surviving husbands jailed. Justine Mbabazi is a Rwandan gender expert, who lost her own husband and parents in the genocide. She was active in discussion forums on constitutional reforms in Rwanda, the review of the Family and Inheritance Law, Children’s Rights Law and in drafting the Gender Based Violence Law. Mbabazi is currently working on an empowerment project for aspiring Afghan women Members of Parliament. Speaking at a May 23 conference in Berne, Switzerland, organized by PeaceWomen Across the Globe and Swisspeace, Mbabazi said that although transitional justice in Rwanda was not “100% pure”, women were a driving force in bringing communities back together. She gave this interview to JusticeInfo in Berne.

JusticeInfo: What would you say transitional justice in Rwanda has done for women?

Justine Mbabazi: I would actually say that women did a lot for transitional justice in Rwanda. Women were the key actors from early on when Rwanda decided to embark on the traditional justice approach which is the Gacaca system. Women not only played a key role in justice, reconciliation, forgiveness, truth telling and truth finding, but also as Gacaca judges. About 70% of the Gacaca judges were women. They facilitated very nicely and very swiftly the justice processes. But they were also mindful of the effects of the violence on women, for example when it came to witness protection, the sexual violence cases and the testimonies, how victims would be protected while the trials were in public to promote forgiveness. The victims were extremely protected. The women Gacaca judges had a huge impact because they understood that yes, justice needs to be served but women victims need to be protected, particularly when it is a very sensitive issue like rape.

JusticeInfo: When we think of transitional justice in Rwanda, we tend to think of the Gacaca courts and the UN’s International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. But Gacaca was criticized by international human rights organizations. There were no defence lawyers, for example, and some allegations of corruption and influence. And the ICTR was often criticized by the Rwandan government. Do you think these institutions could have done better?

JM: It could have taken more than a hundred years to prosecute and try genocide cases if we had not had the Gacaca courts, which worked for Rwanda. I am not saying it would work elsewhere because it was very much based on Rwandan traditions, the Rwandan way of thinking and the Rwandan way of healing. For those who criticized, it’s because obviously they are outsiders and even myself, when I get involved in other situations in other countries, I know that at the end of my contract I am going to go home, it is not something I am going to live with. But for people who are part of it, it’s their history, their future, and they have to decide what it is. In Rwanda it was Gacaca, and it worked. In 10 years, the Gacaca system prosecuted more than 1.9 million cases, whereas the ICTR prosecuted no more than 50 or 60 cases, not to mention the huge budgets they wasted, but that’s their system, the UN system. Even the national courts in Rwanda, they are slow, very slow, because there is procedure to be followed. But when you think about genocide and how it happens, there is no procedure to be followed. So dealing with the aftermath has to be innovative.

JusticeInfo: What do you see as the priorities for Rwanda now, to improve the lot of women?

JM: I think employment. Not only jobs for women but also for young people. Redundancy kills and destroys societies. You know about the genocide and how it happened. It was young people lacking employment, lacking education, being coerced and manipulated by other people. So for me, employment is the biggest challenge, because when people are employed they improve, and improve the lives of their families.

JusticeInfo: You have worked in other countries, such as Afghanistan, Burundi and South Sudan. What lessons do you think other countries can take from Rwanda?

JM: Transitional justice is a process where a broken society can apply different approaches that work for them to heal, to recover. So most post-conflict countries need that process to happen. In Afghanistan there was no genocide, but it is long-lasting divisionism, manipulation and discrimination against women. My challenge there is that it’s a different culture, it’s a different religion, a different context. Of course in Afghanistan there was so much foreign intervention, whereas in Rwanda, since there was no foreign intervention to stop genocide, really there was no foreign intervention in the recovery. There was support, but Rwandans made sure that every solution was going to be from Rwanda and acknowledged by Rwandans based on the traditions that people understand. So if Afghanistan and South Sudan can apply what encompasses their tradition, their way of understanding, even if it means bringing back the ancient values in the name of peace, transitional justice and peace building really have no limits. Whatever works for you, but try to apply something!