Women lead in effort to rebuild Rwanda

Aloisea Inyumba has had responsibilities that would test the mettle of any human being, not just a young woman.

Before she was 30, she grappled with how to care for the nearly 500,000 orphans left behind by Rwanda's 1994 genocide. Now, she spends her days visiting villages to help them prepare for the release of 80,000 prisoners who allegedly participated in the killings, but have been jailed for years without trial because there aren't enough courts to try them. Their cases will be dealt with now through a community justice system called gacaca.

As executive secretary of Rwanda's National Unity and Reconciliation Commission, Ms. Inyumba is among those charged with one of the most daunting tasks ever undertaken: forging a peaceful society out of both the survivors of the genocide and those who perpetrated it.

"Our major challenge is how do you bring people together who have been taught to think they should be divided," she said during a visit to the United States.

In contrast to conflict areas such as the Balkans, where leaders often reject reconciliation, Rwanda's government is pursuing a policy of national unity. It is fraught with difficulty and peril. But, she says, "it is the only way forward. It is extremely important to promote unity to create a base for sustainable development and peace in our country."

Many of the country's best educated were targeted in the massacres - Tutsis and some Hutus who refused to go along with the genocide, in which more than a million people died in three months.. Now, 70 percent of the population is below the poverty line and 52 percent of adults cannot read or write.

So along with helping people deal with the trauma and learn to live with those who have done them harm, "we must also ensure that education and economic opportunities are open to everyone," she says, in order to avoid another tragedy. To accomplish all this, she adds, there is the challenge of developing responsible leadership.

Inyumba and Angelina Muganza, Rwanda's minister for gender and women in development, visited Boston last week as part of Harvard University's Women Waging Peace program. The two confident young women are examples of the government's commitment not only to involving both Hutu and Tutsi but also "mainstreaming" women into the political system.

They were fortunate, the women say, because they were in a position to get a university education - both lived as refugees in Uganda after their families fled earlier massacres (Inyumba's father was killed just before she was born). They have played responsible roles since the Rwandan Patriotic Front's successful sweep through the country ended the genocide.

Ms. Muganza had worked for a nongovernmental organization in Kenya, and dealt with refugee issues in Rwanda before taking on her current post. Inyumba first headed the ministry for women and families, where her efforts to place orphans of the genocide in Rwandan families have resulted in the closing of 70 of the country's 100 orphanages.

Now, they are encouraging Rwandan women to take their place in political and economic development. "About 37 percent of households are headed by women," Muganza says, "and the majority have never been in school." The government is setting up women's councils at the grass-roots and national levels, changing the inheritance laws, creating tools for women's entrepreneurship, and requiring that girls be educated along with boys.

The national-unity policy factors into all their efforts. Muganza's deputy, for example, is a Hutu woman whose husband is in prison.

Not all bodes well on the unity front, however. Eight Hutus have resigned from government posts during the past year over differences with Tutsi leadership, including the country's Hutu president. Gen. Paul Kagame - the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) leader and Tutsi vice president long seen as the key powerbroker - became president in April. While General Kagame is the strong proponent of the national-unity policy - and from the start encouraged Hutu refugees to return from the Congo - some observers see danger signs in a largely Tutsi-run government in a country with a huge Hutu majority.

The most formidable task, of course, is helping Rwandans learn to live with neighbors who killed their family members. "Over 3 million [Hutus] who fled to the Congo and Tanzania have come back and have to live with the victims," Inyumba says.

And now prisoners who have lived for years in overcrowded jail conditions are about to be released.

Two laws have been passed to deal with the outstanding justice issues. The first law categorized the crimes into four groups: those who planned the genocide; those who killed large numbers; those who killed on a more limited scale; and those who informed and committed property crimes.

The people responsible for masterminding the genocide are being tried in the regular court system. The rest are to go through the gacaca system, a traditional, communal justice approach reinstituted by the second law. Inyumba expects communal trials to get under way in June.

Meanwhile, the Unity and Reconciliation Commission has been encouraging dialogue at the national and local levels.

"You have to go through the process of talking very openly about what transpired," she says. "People are discussing for the first time the causes and the effects of the conflict."

"You can imagine what it is like for a woman who has lost all her children, and they were killed by the immediate neighbor," she adds. "We are not asking them to reconcile, but to begin talking. At first, they cannot even sit together."

The commission's civic education program also informs people of their rights, and urges them to consider how they can participate in rebuilding the society. It is also responsible for monitoring other institutions to see whether they are observing policies and practices that promote reconciliation.

"We are thinking about many strategies," Inyumba says. "It's a total institutional change in our country."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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