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In Rwanda and Around the World, Healing Trauma After Genocide

Today we commemorate the 23rd anniversary of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. On this occasion, I am thinking about people around the world who are demonized and targeted because of their nationality, race, ethnicity, religion, or language and reflecting on what it takes to rebuild after mass atrocities.

Women for Women International (WfWI) began its work in Rwanda in 1997 when many of the wounds of genocide were still open. We bore witness to the efficiency of the government in healing some of the physical scars of the violence, but what remained and what continues to haunt local communities is the trauma and pain left behind. It was in Rwanda that as an organization we learned that just because the guns stop firing, the trauma does not stop.

In the light of the number of countries around the world on the brink of genocide today, it is important to reflect on the lessons we’ve learned from Rwanda. As minority groups are targeted in Iraq and Syria for their religious beliefs and South Sudan, the world’s youngest country, falls into ethnic violence perhaps this is a time for global reflection.

Have we learned from our experiences in Rwanda?

One lesson we at WfWI learned is how women can be transformative agents of change during periods of reconstruction and healing from trauma. Women’s leadership in peace and security, and in healing and community building has been very conscious and systematic in Rwanda. In 2003, the country adopted a new constitution to foster and protect women’s participation in the government. The constitution created a quota to ensure at least 30 percent of positions in local and national government and in political parties are held by women, but the country has surpassed the quota by a longshot. This has contributed to lasting peace in Rwanda. In fact, research shows that when women are involved, there is a 35% increase in lasting peace agreements creating stable, inclusive societies.

We also learned that it is not enough to involve women in reconstruction and healing, women have to be a part of negotiations during conflict, and their voices must be heard at every level of society. Today 64 percent of the country’s parliamentarians are women. Seven out of 14 judges and forty percent of mayors and deputy mayors are women as well. Experts in the field of women, peace and security often point to Rwanda as a country that was rebuilt by women. Even that exemplary engagement doesn’t stop rampant violence against women and attitudes and cultural practices that negatively impact women and girls are prevalent. 56 percent of Rwandan women and girls between the ages of 15-49 who have had a partner have experience physical or sexual violence at the hands of an intimate partner at least once. Often, as is the case in Rwanda, violence at a national level normalizes violence at all levels and contributes to violence against women making it essential to include women’s rights while devising peacebuilding and post-genocide strategies.

Rwanda teaches us that, as important as it is to ensure that women have a seat at the table, for nation-wide change in women’s status, it is also essential to work with women and men at the grassroots level, in rural areas, and in marginalized communities.

It is not enough to have women representatives at the national table. We also must invest in local communities to make sure women have a say in what happens in their families and neighborhoods like WfWI does in Rwanda and around the world. Globally, after graduating from our program, 91% of the women we work with say they are involved in financial decision making at home, compared to 63% at enrollment. Before our training, 27% of the women report participating in a community group. After, 56% of our graduates participate in groups. Before our program, 66% of the women report attending a community activity. After our program, 84% attend community events and activities. These are all examples of women making their voices heard at the most grassroots level.

Another important lesson from Rwanda is the significance of investing in developing and post-conflict countries long term. WfWI has been working in Rwanda for two decades and in this time, we have learned that as the circumstances for women change, their needs do too, and that just because the overt violence has ended, the impact of the genocide and war will not dissipate.

What we’ve seen in Rwanda is a decay in trust among people and communities after genocide. The work of rebuilding communities and trust is not something that can be completed in a few years. It can take decades as it has for many communities we’ve worked with. It takes women and men of different ethnic groups and beliefs sitting together once a week every week for a year to change attitudes and build trust. We have been able to do this at WfWI by committing to communities with long term programs and bringing women of different backgrounds together.

The resurgence of violence and conflict whether it is in South Sudan or Syria or South Africa, teaches us that even though officially a conflict may end, the impact of violence is long term and to address it we must have long term strategies. In order to work, our strategies must involve local communities, especially women, at every level.

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