Texas Holocaust and Genocide Commission Awareness - Education - Inspiration

Resisting Evil: Women Upstanders in the Genocides, Part II


By THGC Admin

This blog post is a collaboration between Education Specialist Robin Lane and Program Specialist Cheyanne Perkins.

On March 15, this blog looked at women’s resistance actions within the Holocaust, the Cambodian genocide, and the Darfur genocide.  Today, we will examine the heroism of women who survived the Bosnian and Rwandan genocides.

Please be aware that this post discusses violence against women, focusing heavily on rape and other types of sexual atrocities.

Rape is often used as a genocidal tactic, specifically chosen for a variety of reasons.  In societies where children belong to the ethnic and religious heritage of their fathers, making women pregnant through rape is one way to destroy their culture.  Rape also brings terror and humiliation to women and their families.  The perpetrators of the Bosnian and Rwandan genocides had these goals in mind.  Yet, although the women of those genocides did suffer horrendous violations, they found the courage to face their attackers, and the world.

The Bosnian Genocide

Monument in Foča dedicated to the victims of the massacre.
Photo courtesy of Bjoertvedt via Wikimedia Commons.

The entirety of the Bosnian genocide saw horrible atrocities committed against the Bosniak population by Serbs and their allies.  What happened in the city of Foča, however, has had a lasting impact on how gendered violence is viewed and prosecuted within the context of genocide.

In 1991, just before the genocide began, Foča—located in southeastern Bosnia-Herzegovina—had a very diverse population.  That would change the next year.  On April 8, 1992, Foča was attacked by forces seeking to permanently rid the area of non-Serbs and erase evidence of their existence.  These troops captured innocent civilians, and separated the men and women.  Many men were murdered.  The women (along with girls over the age of 12) were taken to “rape camps.”  They were held in buildings under horrible conditions, with little food, where they were tortured and forced to work as slaves—sexual and otherwise.  Many women lived in these vicious conditions for months.  Some of them said that it would be impossible to count the number of times they were raped.  Because the transmission of identity is patrilineal in both Muslim and Serbian Orthodox traditions, bearing the children of their rapists meant that the women and their offspring would lose their Muslim identity.

In December 1993, the UN Commission on Human Rights passed a resolution that declared rape to be a war crime.  Years later, in 2001, three of the main perpetrators were prosecuted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), and were convicted by the Hague Tribunal under several counts.

This was the first international prosecution of war criminals since the end of WWII, and marked the first time that rape had ever been called a crime against humanity in a conviction.  Rape had not been prosecuted at Nuremburg, and had not been recognized as a full-fledged war crime in the Tokyo trials.  That rape was punished so severely in this case was only made possible by the extraordinarily brave testimonies of several of the victims.  Over 20 women came to testify against the defendants (Dragoljab Kunarac, Radomir Kovac, and Zoran Vukovic, officers in the Bosnian Serb army).

Although the identities of the women were protected in official documents and in the media, they had to testify in full view of the men who raped them.  They also had to listen to the men’s defense pleas—that since the men didn’t kill the women, the women didn’t suffer, and that rape isn’t psychologically or physically painful like other types of torture.  Some women stared down the perpetrators.  One refused even to look at them, turning her back while testifying.  Still another proudly declared, “Let the world know what they did!”

No matter how the testimonies were given, extreme courage was shown with each one.  These women changed the course of history by standing up to the men who committed such atrocities against them.  Not only is rape now recognized as an element of genocide, and as a crime against humanity, but this case set an important precedent at the International Criminal Court (ICC) that witnesses who have suffered traumatic experiences are not necessarily considered unreliable.

All three perpetrators filed appeals.  All three appeals were dismissed.

For first-hand evidence given by two of these heroic women, follow these links to view a short video clip and written accounts:

Testimony of Witness 50
Testimony of Witness 87

The Rwandan Genocide

The Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre in Rwanda.
Photo courtesy of Dave Proffer via Wikimedia Commons.

The Rwandan genocide encompassed a truly alarming amount of violence in a shockingly short amount of time.  From April to July 1994, members of the Tutsi ethnic minority were targeted by the Hutu majority, and at least 800,000 people were viciously murdered.  Violence and death on such a massive scale will inevitably have an enormous impact on survivors.  The genocide in Rwanda created thousands upon thousands of widows and orphans.

As was the case in the Bosnian genocide, perpetrators deliberately used rape as a weapon against the women of the targeted population.  Statistics are unconfirmed, but reliable estimates show that up to 500,000 women suffered this fate in the short three months of the genocide.  While many rape victims were murdered immediately after their attack, others were left alive so that they could, in the words of their attackers, “die of sadness” later.  The pain did not stop there.  Numerous women were held as sex slaves, and many were mutilated by perpetrators so that they would never be able to bear children.  Women who were made pregnant by their rapists lived with the knowledge that their children would inherit their father’s ethnic status—meaning that they would lose their Tutsi identity.  Thus, rape became an attack on future generations.  Perpetrators knew that rape victims would also be forced to carry the additional burden of huge social stigma, such as being ostracized within their own society.

Trials for crimes committed in the Rwandan genocide set some important ground rules for how rape is viewed within a legal framework.  The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) tried Jean-Paul Akayesu in 1998.  He was convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity.  His trial was the first time the court called rape a crime against humanity as a coercive act.  This differs from the ICTY trials, where rape was defined as non-consensual.

Despite being so terrorized, the women of Rwanda did not stand idly by in the aftermath of such horror.  Human Rights Watch notes that half of all households in Rwanda today have female heads, and the country’s population is about 70% female.  Rwanda has more female members of Parliament per capita than any other country in the world—63.8% of seats are filled by women.  In ten years, life expectancy has risen from 48 to 58 years, and deaths of children under the age of five have been cut in half.  A compulsory education program has put boys and girls in primary and secondary schools in equal numbers.  Additionally, women can now own and inherit property and are active in business.  Rwanda’s women are working tirelessly to overcome the shockwaves that can still be felt from the genocide that took place over 20 years ago.

Thanks to the determination and strength of these women, the country is healing from its horrific past.  For more information on this topic, take a look at "how women rebuilt Rwanda."

Less than two weeks ago, on March 17, Secretary of State John Kerry officially stated that Daesh (ISIS) has committed, and continues to commit, genocide against several minority groups in Syria and Iraq—namely the Yazidis, Shia Muslims, and Christians.  Please take time to read Secretary Kerry’s “Remarks on Daesh and Genocide.”

As Women’s History Month draws to a close, we should remember that the stories of heroic women, and all upstanders, need to be told throughout the year, every year.

Tags: bosnia daesh foca genocide iraq isis rape rwanda syria women


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