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Essay: Exploring Sexual Violence during Rwandan Genocide: Its "Opportunistic," "Strategic," & "Practice" Dimensions

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Within academic debates, conflict-related sexual violence has been studied for many years. It is often referred to as a multidimensional phenomenon that varies from conflict to conflict (Wood, 2006, Grey & Shephard, 2012). However, it was only recently that the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) recognized the harmful effect of conflict-related sexual violence to peace and security (Grey & Shephard 2012). A case in which national peace and security was harmed by sexual violence, was the Rwandan genocide in 1994. This paper aims to shed light on the nature of sexual violence during the Rwandan conflict by looking at three different dimensions: ‘opportunistic’, ‘practice’ and ‘strategic’ (Wood, 2014). It starts with a theoretical framework that summarizes past theories and explains the theory of Wood that will be used in this paper. Thereafter the background of the genocide is given in the context, followed by the analysis. Finally, some concluding remarks will be made in the conclusion.

Theoretical Framework: Past Research in Conflict-Related Sexual Violence

As defined by the United Nations Security Council (2016, p. 3), conflict-related sexual violence refers to:“rape, sexual slavery, forced prostitution, forced pregnancy, forced abortion, enforced sterilization, forced marriage and any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity perpetrated against women, men, girls or boys that is directly or indirectly linked (temporally, geographically or causally) to a conflict”. This will be the definition used in this paper. The following paragraph summarizes existing theories scholars used to explain the relationship between sexual violence and conflict.

‘Opportunistic’ sexual violence is described in existing literature as violence that is carried out for individual, private reasons, because the situation gives the perpetrator the opportunity to do so (Wood, 2014). An example that influences the presence of opportunistic rape on a micro-level, is the normalization of violence (Baaz 2009). The aggressive environment people find themselves in, results in the termination of social norms and serves as a way to justify the use of sexual violence (Baaz, 2009). On macro-level, the dynamics of warfare contribute to the prevalence of opportunistic sexual violence. Where times of conflict often include weak states and the lack of social controls, the opportunity to engage in rape increases (Wood, 2014).

On the other side of the spectrum, we can find ‘strategic’ sexual violence. When military commandants order or tolerate their combatants to use sexual violence against civilians or the enemy, with the purpose of punishment or to cause trauma on the side of the enemy we can speak of strategic sexual violence (Wood, 2014). Moreover it can be used as a way to gain information or to eradicate the targeted population from a certain place (Wood 2014, Smeulers & Grünfeld, 2011).

A scholar that criticises this dichotomy between on one hand opportunistic and on the other hand strategic explanations of conflict-related sexual violence, is Wood. She argues there is a need for a third, intermediate, category, to explain sexual violence that is based on social relations: sexual violence as a ‘practice’ (Wood, 2014). Sexual violence as a practice is the result of social interactions rather than individual preferences or strategies. The masculinity of warfare within military institutions is an example of an environment in which rape as a practice is likely to occur (Smeulers & Grunfeld, 2012, Wood, 2014, Baaz, 2009). The culture of superiority, masculinity and fearlessness that combatants are exposed to, constructs certain gender-roles that influences sexual violence. Rape needs to be understood as a “performative act”, that helps men to strengthen their masculinity (Baaz, 2009). Therefore, by the use of sexual violence, they feel like they live up to the behaviour of their group. To explain the nature of sexual violence in Rwanda, these three categories – ‘opportunistic’, ‘practice’ and ‘strategic’ will be used.

Context: The Rwandan Genocide and Rape

1994, a black page in the history of Rwanda. In April of this year the strong ethnic boundaries between the Hutu and Tutsi population as an aftermath of colonial times, caused a genocide in which allegedly a million people were killed, of whom mainly the Tutsi minority (De Brouwer & Ka Hon Chu, 2009). During the 100 days the genocide lasted, many people became victim of sexual violence (Human Rights Watch, 1996). Even though it is extremely difficult to estimate an accurate number of the violations (Baaz 2009, Human Rights Watch, 1996), evidence shows the widespread nature of rape, committed by the Rwandan Armed Forces (RAF), members of the Hutu militia group the Interahamwe or by other civilians. The sexual violence was characterized by a strong gender aspect and the violence was mainly directed towards Tutsi women (Weitsman, 2008, Human Rights Watch, 1996). Apart from Tutsi women, there was, albeit less frequently, sexual violence against Hutu women and men in general (De Brouwer & Ka Hon Chu, 2009).  

The nature of the violence was diverse and varied spanning from individual rapes, to gangrape or women that became victim to sexual slave trade (Human Rights Watch, 1996). Some of the women were penetrated with objects and in many cases women were killed after they were sexually abused (Weitsman, 2008). Moreover, according to Weitsman, the widespread rape that took place during the genocide, was intentionally acted to degrade and humiliate Tutsi women and was, therefore, mostly committed in front of the public eye. Anti-Tutsi propaganda contributed to the feelings of hatred against the Tutsi (De Brouwer & Ka Hon Chu, 2009). This propaganda, portrayed Tutsi women as sexual objects, made to serve men (Human Rights Watch, 1996, De Brouwer & Ka Hon Chu, 2009). Moreover, it was claimed that Tutsi women perceived themselves to be superior in relation to Hutu (Human Rights Watch 1996, De Brouwer & Ka Hon Chu, 2009). Many government officials and leaders of the Interahamwe were aware of the widespread rape and some even encouraged their combatants to use sexual violence. The next paragraph will explore these types of sexual violence in relation to the theory of Wood (2014).

Analysis: Explaining Sexual Violence during the Rwandan Genocide  

To explain the nature of conflict-related violence during the genocide in Rwanda, it is important to note that there is not one theory that exhaustively explains the situation. In the following paragraph the theory of Wood explains the nature of sexual violence during the Rwandan genocide in terms of a ‘opportunistic’, ‘practice’ or a ‘strategic’ phenomenon.

To start with, the opportunistic type of rape. During the Rwandan genocide, most sexual violence did not occur out of an opportunistic motive. This can be explained by the fact that the offenders had access to both ethnicity groups, but mostly targeted Tutsi women (Wood, 2014). Thus, most of the perpetrators intentionally chose their victims; their deeds were not the product of opportunity. However, for the smaller part of the Hutu victims of sexual violence, it can be argued there was a sense of opportunity present. In the midst of the chaos created by the conflict, the opportunity to rape increased by a lack of social controls.

Part of the rape during the Rwandan genocide can be explained as sexual violence as a ‘practice’. With practice, Wood means the sexual violence that results from social interactions. Tutsi women were portrayed as sexual objects and good mistresses (De Brouwer & Ka Hon Chu, 2009). In a war-torn society where the distinction between Hutu and Tutsi had never been so big, sexual violence turned out to be an “appropriate form of retribution for long-standing grievances” (Wood, 2006, p. 327). As the Tutsi had always been portrayed as superior to the Hutu, the genocide offered an environment in which feelings of hatred, superiority and masculinity could be expressed through sexual violence. Moreover, it created an environment in which men could “test” the socially shared label of Tutsi women as sexually serving objects.

Lastly, the sexual violence that occurred during the genocide in Rwanda can also be explained from a ‘strategic’ point of view. As was mentioned in the context, there were government agents and commanders of the militia, that encouraged the use of sexual violence by their combatants on the Tutsi population. The aim of this strategy, was the punishment and humiliation of women. The fact that some combatants used tools to rape women, proves the lack of individual sexual needs; and therefore it excludes opportunistic rape. By sexually abusing them, women were labelled as “undesirable” and “used” (Human Rights Watch, 1996). This rejection of the Tutsi women disrupted the Tutsi society even more. Therefore, it can be seen as a strategy of war to eliminate the enemy.

Conclusion: Rape as a rule

“Rape was the rule and its absence the exception” (Human Rights Watch, 1996, p.17). While the exact number of victims of sexual violence during the Rwandan genocide will never be known, it was clear that the majority of the victims of rape was Tutsi. The ethnicity component, therefore, excludes opportunistic rape as a major explanation. Rape as a practice and a strategy, seems to form a more thorough explanation for the sexual violence that plagued Rwanda during the genocide in 1994. Old grievances, filled with feelings of superiority were strengthened and instructed by propaganda. These social disruptions became the breeding ground for part of the sexual violence; practiced through social relations. Moreover, rape served as a strategy of war, encouraged or even ordered by the commandants. By breaking down the women, they broke down the enemy. To conclude, the sexual violence during the Rwandan genocide knows many different faces. Even though its existence is partly explained in this paper, it is important to note that this paper also excluded many forms of sexual violence. These crimes were all committed intentionally and they harmed people; men, women, Hutu and Tutsi.


Baaz, M.A. (2009). Why do soldiers rape? Masculinity, violence and sexuality in the armed forces in Congo. International studies quarterly, 53(2), 495-518.

De Brouwer, A.M & Ka Hon Chu, S. (2009). The men who killed me: Rwandan survivors of sexual violence. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre

Grey, R & Shephard, L.J. (2012). “Stop rape now?”: Masculinity, Responsibility, and Conflict-Related Sexual Violence. Men and Masculinities 16(1), 115-135.

Human Rights Watch. (1996). Shattered Lives: Sexual Violence during the Rwandan Genocide and its Aftermath. Human Rights Watch Africa. Retrieved from https://www.hrw.org/legacy/reports/1996/Rwanda.htm

Smeulers, A. & Grünfeld, F. (2011). International crimes and other gross human rights violations – a multi- and interdisciplinary textbook, Antwerp: Intersentia.

UN Security Council (2016). Conflict-related sexual violence. Report of the Secretary General, S/2016/361.

Weitsman, P.A. (2008). The Politics of Identity and Sexual Violence: Review of Bosnia and Rwanda. Human Rights Quarterly, 30(3), 561-578.

Wood, E.J. (2006). Violation in Sexual Violence during War. Politics & Society, 34(3), 307-341.

Wood, E.J. (2014). Conflict-Related Sexual Violence and the Policy Implications of Recent Research. International Review of the Red Cross, 96(894), 457-478.

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