Rwanda Trains Mediators to Break Silence on Gender-Based Violence


Article Highlights


Government initiatives are driving a cultural shift away from accepting gender-based violence against women.

KIGALI, RWANDA A short-waisted, thin woman hunches over in a marshland near the river in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. One by one, she washes a pile of clothing and blankets in Kicukiro district.

The 28-year-old woman, who requested anonymity for fear of her safety, says she suffered many years of harassment and violence at the hands of her husband. Money problems were usually the trigger. 

“Every time I asked him for money to buy foods for our kids, he responded by beating me up and hurling insults at me,” she says.   

She finally decided to find employment so she wouldn’t have to rely on her husband for money.

“I maintained a wise silence and decided not to ask him for anything so that our kids sometimes spent a day without food,” she says. “This prompted me to look into ways to start finding food for my kids.” 

She says some of her neighbors were aware of her difficulties and gave her the idea of washing clothes to earn a living to support herself and her children.

“I am obliged to serve as a casual laborer so that when I am lucky enough to be hired, I earn 3,000 francs per day,” she says.

With this money, less than $5, she buys food and clothing.

“The little money I earn is very helpful to me,” she says, “because my kids do not suffer from hunger anymore. I don’t walk barefoot or wear torn clothes anymore.”

Earning money and contributing to the household income have given her a sense of security.

“Since I began earning money, my husband has stopped hurling insults at me or beating me up, because I don’t ask him for anything,” she says. 

Even though it is difficult for her to work while raising her kids, she says that now she can live with dignity.

“It is very difficult for me to wash such a pile of clothes and raise three closely spaced kids at the same time,” she says. “I have cracks between [my] toes because I spend a lot of time with my feet in water. My back is always hurting, but I am in joy because today, I have a sense of dignity. I am no longer deprived of my rights.”

She says she doesn’t plan to give birth to any more children because she wouldn’t be able to balance working with raising them. But this could become a fresh point of contention with her husband.

“I had a tubal ligation without my husband knowing,” she says. “But if he happens to know it, he can kill me. Can you imagine if I gave birth to one more child, what would it be like? How can all those children survive?”

Women say they used to accept domestic abuse by their husbands as gender-based violence was long considered the norm here. But now, community members are breaking this cultural silence as government-trained mediators resolve domestic disputes as part of a multipronged initiative. Mediators say that violence hurts women and children. In addition to government efforts, international programs are empowering women economically to reduce their dependence on their husbands and violence in the home.

Up to 93 percent of victims of physical and psychological abuse in Rwanda are women, according to 2011 statistics from the Isange One Stop Centre, one of the government centers that provide free medical, legal and psycho-social services for survivors of child domestic abuse and gender-based violence. And 65 percent of victims are children younger than 18.

Cultural beliefs, imbalance in relationships, women’s economic dependency, poverty, insufficient knowledge of rights and laws and alcohol abuse are the most dominant contributing factors to abuse of women, according to a 2011 report by the Rwanda Ministry of Gender and Family Promotion.

Gender-based violence used to be considered the norm.

“I am old, but I will never forget the violence I experienced when I was living with my husband,” Therese Nkirankima, 96, says.

She became the victim of violence for the simple reason that she had given birth to all daughters in a culture that favored sons.                                     

“When I gave birth to my fifth-born daughter, my husband chased me out of the bedroom so that I was obliged to relocate to the sitting room together with my baby,” Nkirankima says. “Worse still, he refused to give us bed covers so that my baby caught pneumonia from being cold.”

Nkirankima says that food was another reason for abuse. 

“In the past, when I prepared meat, I was obliged to serve all the meat to my husband to such an extent that I was obliged to keep the remaining meat for him,” Nkirankima says. “I could not serve a single portion of the meat to my kids. Otherwise, I could be severely beaten up.”

Nkirankima says a woman couldn’t report the violence perpetrated against her during the past because community members would have rebuked her, saying that the abuse was just what happened to married women. Reporting the violence against her would have continued to destroy her family, she says.

“A woman was treated as an object or a slave,” Nkirankima says. “She had no say in her life and was deprived of her rights. She was allowed nothing other than respecting her husband and doing what her husband wanted. Otherwise, she was repudiated by her husband and hence obliged to return to her parents’ home, ending up ridiculing her whole family.”

But this culture of acceptance and silence toward gender-based violence is changing.

Nkirankima says she is happy to see that her children are on good terms with their spouses.

Government initiatives are driving this change. 

Antoinette Nyirasafari, 41, is a member of one of the anti-gender-based violence committees set up by the government. Called Abahuza, which means “mediators” in Kinyarwanda, the committee mediates conflicts among family members in Kicukiro.

Nyirasafari says that violence against women was rampant some years ago, but it is declining each year. She attributes the decline to a change in culture.

It used to be against social mores for a woman to denounce her husband because he was considered a lion in the family, she says. But now, it is becoming more acceptable for wives and husbands to talk about their problems and to find solutions together.

“Due to the Rwandan culture, women who are victims of sexual violence don’t usually report such violence,” Nyirasafari says. “However, some of them dare to report it to us so that we provide them with advice.”

The committee members are volunteers, but they receive government stipends for transportation and communication to carry out their work. Nyirasafari checks in with pregnant wives and children to make sure that their families treat them well.

Nyirasafari says violence committed by husbands against their wives is the most commonly reported domestic problem to her committee. She attributes this violence to poverty, when the inadequacy of household income leads to conflicts between family members.

“When a woman depends on her husband for everything to such an extent that she is even unable to earn money to buy a kilogram of salt that sells at 100 francs (10 cents),” she says, “the husband treats her as he pleases so that he calls her names or beats her up, especially when he returns home whilst drunk.”

Another cause of family conflict is the lack of discussion about sexual issues, Nyirasafari says. In most cases, men are brute when it comes to sexual intercourse with their wives and even force sexual positions onto them. This may be considered rape, she says.

Nyirasafari says most of the cases reported to the committee involve physical violence, with drunkenness as a routine culprit. 

Claudine Iribagiza, a 32-year-old mother from Kicukiro, says that her husband used to physically abuse her and her two daughters.

“He returned home whilst drunk and attempted to beat up our first-born child, so that I personally intervened to prevent him from doing it,” she says, “and he broke my arm.”

Iribagiza says her that after her husband did this, he started breaking household items and beating up anyone at home.

“My neighbors managed to get me to a health facility, so that I have finally recovered so far,” she says.

Iribagiza says the government committee member responsible for mediating conflicts between family members in her area intervened and helped her to reconcile with her husband. He vowed not to abuse any of his family members anymore.

“I am on good terms with him now,” she says, “There are no issues with him.”

Nyirasafari says that ending violence against women is important not only for women, but also because of its negative impacts on children.

“Whenever my father returned home, he could do nothing other than beating up my mother,” Nyirasafari says. “I don’t think any of us could intervene for fear of being beaten up and forced out of the house and hence suffering from cold outdoors.”

Ndikubwayo Ildephonse, 14, was born in Kirehe, a district in Rwanda’s Eastern province. But he ran away from home because of persistent domestic violence and now lives on the street.  

“Whenever my father returns home, he beats up my mother, throws food on the ground,” Ndikubwayo says. “He sometimes forces us out of the house so that we spend the night outdoors. This is why I decided to flee my home. I advised my mother to flee with me, but she refused. I am so scared that one day people will tell me that my mother has been killed by my father.”

Ndikubwayo says he had to drop out of school because he could not pay attention in class. He instead worried about how his father might beat him up once he returned home.

“I was always sleeping in class and afraid because my father had traumatized me,” Ndikubwayo says. “This is why I decided to drop out of school to struggle for survival in town.” 

Nyirasafari says that in addition to mediating conflicts in families, members of Abahuza also encourage parents to join family planning programs. A high number of children is another source of conflict between family members, especially when parents are unable to afford to feed them.

“In most cases, the husband is annoyed by much noise and a lot of mess in the house caused by those children, while the wife cannot have time to take care of herself,” Nyirasafari says. “In this case, the husband becomes enraged and starts hurling abusive language, leading to violence against his wife. This is why our program includes sensitizing families to engage in family planning and not to give birth to more than three children.”

In late 2010, the Ministry of Gender and Family Promotion established a technical team to develop a national policy against gender-based violence by providing basic knowledge on how to maintain family peace, says Christiane Umuhire, a gender mainstreaming officer with the ministry. This policy reflects the government’s commitment to gender equality, the realization of human rights for all, and the economic and social development of the country.

“Moreover, gender-based violence and child-protection committees have been put in place from grassroots to the national levels,” Umuhire says. “The Rwanda National Police also has strengthened the capacity of over 1,000 officers in basic knowledge on GBV and related crime prevention and response. Sensitization programs have also been provided to the community to help break the silence and report on all forms of GBV.”

The government passed a gender-based violence law in 2009 that defined gender-based violence and called for its prevention through educational campaigns and legal punishment against perpetrators, according to the Ministry of Gender and Family Promotion website. In July 2011, the Cabinet passed a policy and strategic plan against gender-based violence. 

International organizations are also working to empower women to be less dependent on their husbands.

The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, an international financing institution, has provided training and start-up capital to poor women through The Access Project, a nonprofit organization. The women are to form groups to launch businesses so that they can support themselves.

Rugando Strong Women, a group that sells charcoal, is one of the cooperatives that has received support from the fund.

“The support from which we benefited was of great importance,” says Ayinkamiye Donata, the group’s accountant. “We managed to open up our mind so that we are now active. I can now afford to buy an exercise book for my kid. We are no longer disdained by our husbands because we contribute to our household income.”