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Cry Not My Sister

By Rebekah Sears, Former Intern, African Enterprise (Rwanda)
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Christine1 remembers it as if it were yesterday. One morning in 1994 a group of men barged into her home and, finding her alone, they brutally beat and raped her, leaving her naked, broken and alone on the cold floor. These men stole her innocence and her childhood and robbed her of any joy.

Sadly, stories like Christine’s were so common during Rwanda’s Genocide and continue to impact women, young and old, all over the world. April 2010 will mark the 16th Anniversary of the Genocide when bands of militias and civilians, under the leadership of an extremist government, murdered an estimated 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in just 100 days.

Much attention has been given to family members who were left behind to mourn. But many Rwandans, especially women, continue to suffer from the aftermath of one of the cruellest acts of war - rape. An estimated 500,000 women and girls were raped during the Genocide. And as if the act itself was not enough of a nightmare, the consequences, be they physical, emotional, or cultural, penetrate deeply into the lives of these women.

Cultural stigmas associated with rape are prominent in Rwandan society. A woman who engages in any sexual activity outside of marriage, even when it is forced upon her, is considered to be “spoiled,” unfit for marriage and treated like an outcast in her own community. Because women like Christine, who speak openly about what happened to them, risk being isolated, the alternative is often to suffer in silence. How can these women ever find healing and hope in a country still struggling to find hope for the future?

The district of Bugesera, just south of Kigali, was one of the regions hit hardest by the Genocide. Being a Tutsi stronghold, militias were bussed in from across the country to slaughter and rape people throughout the area.

But out of the ashes and devastation that wreaked havoc on this region came a small movement of hope, especially for the women. From the grassroots, and by the vision of one local young woman, a small support group was formed that was designed to build a community among the survivors of rape. This movement is called Wirira.

Wirira translates from Kinyarwanda to “Cry Not.” and is designed to be a place where survivors of rape can form a community of support. It consists of women of all ages, including Genocide widows and older women, as well as women who were only girls in 1994.

Because Christine is one of the younger women of the group, her story is one of stolen innocence and lost childhood. Others, like Diane, recall their attackers using jagged pieces of wood to rape them, causing permanent damage and constant physical discomfort. Mary remembers hiding under bodies after being raped and then watching as her children were killed when militias stormed the church where her family was hiding.

In a culture that shuns such women, Wirira has become a community, a family for women like Christine, Diane and Mary. This sense of community and family is evident as the women care for one another, maintaining a safe venue where they can share their stories and bear each other’s burdens in an attempt to continue the long healing process. They are like sisters to each other when the rest of their families turn away.

But the healing goes beyond the sharing of stories, the bearing of burdens and the sense of sisterhood. The members of Wirira find themselves encouraging each other in a community of faith by embracing the healing power of God, through the suffering of Jesus Christ.

This faith by no means comes easily amidst the anguish and despair brought on by the Genocide. In fact, such acts of violence and cruelty have caused hundreds of thousands in Rwanda and around the world to question the very existence of a loving God. There is no answer to these questions that will bring complete understanding for us or for these women. But what we do know is that God Himself came to earth in the person of Jesus Christ and suffered and died in order to redeem creation from all sin and sorrow.

It is because of this understanding that these women are able to sing, dance and pray together in a faith community, and begin to heal. Of course the pain and memories are never far from the surface as doubts and sorrows persist. The women constantly rely on each other and God for the strength to face each day. But together as a community and as sisters, they persevere.

These women have found the strength and faith that goes beyond understanding, but how many other thousands in Rwanda and around the world continue to suffer in silence? And the attacks on women continue. Even as we speak brutal sexual attacks against women and girls continue to devastate communities in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo and Darfur. The first priority is to bring an end to this violence; but it is necessary to continue the work even long after the violence is stopped.

My own hope is that this idea of community building among survivors will spread and others will find the strength, faith and will to continue living meaningful lives. The pain persists and will probably follow these women all of their lives. But by the powerful bonds of sisterhood, forged by sharing in each other’s sufferings; through a deep faith in God and by building a community centred in love, faith and hope, women in these circumstances will be able to welcome others to join them saying “Cry Not” my sister.

1 No names used in this piece are the actual names of the individuals.

Rebekah Sears is a former intern with African Enterprise International, working in the Rwanda office with grassroots reconciliation and community development initiatives from 2006 to 2007. Rebekah completed her B.A in history from the University of New Brunswick in 2006, and her M.A. in International Affairs, focusing on post-conflict reconstruction and reconciliation, from the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, after returning from Rwanda. She currently resides in Ottawa where she works for a faith-based public justice organization.


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