I don’t know how to breastfeed and I don’t need to know since the worst experience I ever had is having sex and giving birth against my will,” complained Uwimana (not her real name), a single mother of three and a victim of rape during the Genocide against the Tutsi in 1994.
Uwimana, 38, was born in a family of nine in Nyanza District and works as a maid in Kigali. She vividly remembers how during the genocide she tried to hide from the killer’s machete.
A man who was involved in the killings exterminated Uwimana’s family but rescued her for the purpose of raping her, which resulted in a baby boy who is now 19.
“He took me away, raped me terribly and brought in more people to carry on with the animosity against me,” Uwimana recalled. “I was surprised that ‘our saviour’ abandoned my mother and brothers to the killers.
“I could hear them reporting that they had killed my entire family at once using a machete.”
Fortunately, later on Uwimana would learn that her father also survived the killings.
Slit his throat
In July, as the mayhem subsided since the then rebel Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) Inkotanyi was piling pressure on the government soldiers, neighbours warned the rapist that the Tutsi “assailants” were about to reach their village and that they would slit his throat if they learnt about “their sister’s” torture.
The man walked Uwimana until the hill opposite the RPF camp and released her then returned home.
“When I joined Inkotanyi I thought my suffering was over but the real agony was about to start,” Uwimana said. “Later on, I realised I was pregnant.
“It was very sad because, among ten girls who were raped by the same man, I was the only one who became pregnant.
“I regret that I did not choose to die rather than bear this shame.”
Uwimana’s rapist was later convicted of genocide crimes and handed a life sentence.
As if this was not enough, Uwimana was forced by friends and close relatives to get married to another man. “Do not worry; you will have a happy marriage,” they told her.
She got married in 1995. But she would be disappointed.
“I had twins with the man but the day I gave birth he abandoned me, saying they were not his children,” said Uwimana. “He had whispered to his friends that he would not live with a woman who was raped by Interahamwe.”
As a result of frustration, she did not breastfeed either the twins or their brother. After delivery, a desperate Uwimana dumped the children at her father’s. The old man, who had remarried, died from natural causes in 2000.
As much as survivors of the genocide narrated their suffering, the misery of rape victims remained untold since they would not bring themselves to tell.
However, the challenge is being overcome with time. Since 2011, various well wishers – including the Survivors’ Fund of Rwanda, (SURF), in collaboration with the Rwanda Foundation, an American based NGO – have committed to take these women on the journey to healing.
They started a counselling programme that benefits more than 1,000 single mothers who were willing to disclose that they were victims of rape.
“We used to consider our children as Interahamwe and they also used to insult us, telling us that we took their fathers to prison,” said Uwimana, who has graduated from the two-year counselling programme.
Emmilienne Kambibi, the psychologist at SURF Rwanda, says the counsellors first teach the women the rights of the children and then take them through a disclosure process.
The women end up telling their children how they were born.
Cause of their misfortune
“Single mothers who are victims of rape face challenges in a society which is not coping,” Ms Kambibi told Rwanda Today. “First of all, they have been living with children whom they think are the cause of their misfortune; most of them could not get married. Secondly, these children are not supported by the government fund.”
According to the law that instituted the National Fund for Genocide Survivors (FARG), children born after July 1994, the month the genocide was stopped, are not considered survivors of the genocide.
Most of the children born of rape, including Uwimana’s, fall under this category. Therefore, the single mothers live in extreme poverty, whereby they only get a little support to send their children to school from benefactors such as Foundation Rwanda.
This organisation had registered more than 1,000 female victims of rape during the genocide, an estimate corroborated by Gaetan Niyonzima, the FARG programme manager.
Rwanda Foundation found that the women have over 800 children in primary and secondary school.
Support the families
According to Samuel Munderere, the SURF programme manager, his organisation spends more than Rwf163 million per year on the children’s learning materials and school fees. And their families still need support to survive.
Last December, Mr Niyonzima said, they set aside Rwf200 million to support the families.
Francine Tumushime, the director-general in charge of social affairs in the Ministry of Local Government, said the problems these mothers encounter are well known.
“Their support will be adapted to their needs along the years,” she said.