Genocide widows recount journey of thorns and hope.
By Donah Mbabazi, The New Times.
April 7 marked the 21st anniversary of the beginning of a hundred days of terror in Rwanda in which over one million innocent people were killed. The 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi left many survivors without family, with wounds that would take forever to heal and very little to live for. Many people lost their loved ones.
In the aftermath of the Genocide, widows and widowers came together and formed an association that would help them continue to survive and fight for what was left of their lives.
AVEGA (Association des Veuves du Génocide), an association of widows and widowers who survived the Genocide was formed in 1995 to help genocide widows pick up the pieces and trace a new meaning to life.
Adelina Mukarwaya is a survivor and member of the association; she recalls the massacre and personal endurance twenty one years later, like it was yesterday.
“Life was terrible after the Genocide.Family and friends were killed and our lives were left in pieces. My husband and three of my children were killed and I was left with only one daughter. I was lonely, and I mourned my family day and night. I had to seek refuge in camps because I couldn’t go back to our home,” Mukarwaya reminisces the horrible events.
Mukarwaya says her life got some relief after joining Avega. It’s when she realised that there were other women going through the same ordeal.
“ I realised I wasn’t alone and this gave me strength and hope to continue living. I now earn a living from making jewelry which is sold in the United States of America.”
Mukarwaya has also been able to educate her daughter, now in her third year at the university, thanks to Survivors Fund (SURF).
She also started a new family with someone from the association and the couple has been blessed with three children.
For Beatha Mukankusi, another Genocide widow, the association has literally transformed her tattered life.
Before the Genocide, she lived with her family in Bugesera. When the massacre intensified, the family tried to escape but only a few managed to survive.
“Most of my relatives were murdered; my husband’s family was killed. We were left in isolation and my husband, who had also managed to survive,died shortly after the Genocide. I survived with only my children; we became homeless since we couldn’t go back to our home because the people who killed our family were still there.
“But now we live in Kimironko where Avega constructed houses for us. I am employed at the association and earn a decent living through selling handicrafts which helps me sustain the family,” Mukankusi says.
According to Francoise Umurungi, the National Coordinator of Avega in Kigali, after the Genocide, fifty widows came together to form Avega and regardless of what had happened, they saw the need to join hands and confront the bitter reality with collective resolve.
And since 1995, the association has dedicated itself to supporting and empowering women and men who were affected by the Genocide.
The organisation has over 19,000 members, most of whom are women. Due to the need to embrace more survivors, the association opened branches in all the provinces of the country and health centres providing medical services, psychological counseling, education and training.
“Avega helps the women fight for their rights by offering advice on how to seek justice and it has also built houses for many widows and orphans. The women are involved in various income generating activities such as animal husbandry, jewelry making, among other things,” Umurungi says.
She adds that the association’s biggest challenge is the limitation of funds since most donors are scaling down their support. But she says that they are handling the issue by coming up with projects that will generate income for the association instead of entirely depending on aid.
“We have about 61 women, most of whom are elderly and have no one left but they need care.
This is one of the major problems we are facing, but we are constructing retirement homes with a caretaker in place,” Umurungi says.
The 1994 Rwandan Genocide against the Tutsi was one of the worst genocides in history and its effects still ripple through the country.
At the end of the Genocide, there was an estimated seventy percent women constituting the population.
During the Genocide, Rwandan women were subjected to sexual violence on a massive scale, perpetrated by members of the infamous Hutu militia group known as the Interahamwe.
Although the exact number of women raped will never be known, a great number of them were infected with HIV/Aids.
Testimonies from survivors confirm that rape was extremely widespread and that thousands of women were individually raped, gang-raped or tortured with crude objects being inserted in their private parts. These crimes were frequently part of a pattern in which Tutsi women were raped after they had witnessed the torture and killings of their relatives and the destruction and looting of their homes. According to witnesses, many women were killed immediately after being raped.
Women have greatly contributed to the rebuilding of various sectors of the economy since 1994 when the Genocide was stopped. In terms of leadership, women hold 64 percent of the seats in parliament, making them a priority in the decision making process of the country.
Women entrepreneurs have also made a significant impact in all segments of the economy. The impact of women entrepreneurs on economic development of Rwanda, a case study of women entrepreneurs in expo 2010 organised by Rwanda private sector federation, states Rwanda has the second-highest ratio of female entrepreneurs in Africa.
The contribution of women to agriculture and food production is significant since they comprise over 80% of the labour force in agriculture.