We arrived in Kigali, Rwanda last night. When I hear the word "survivor" I usually think of that TV show that pitted contestants against each other on some remote island, playing games to outlast other players and not be sent home. In Rwanda, when people talk about the genocide those who survived the conflict are called "survivors". Yesterday, we were privileged to visit a survivor's village an hour outside of Kigali and hear from women who survived extreme sexual violence and now live together.
Sevota is an organization that was founded by widowed women and orphans who, at first, came together to cry together. Tears can be therapy. As I sat listening to the testimonies of the women, I realized that in the beginning after being held captive and raped each day, after witnessing your entire family of 100 murdered, and after giving birth to a child that your rapist seeded, healing must first begin by reaching out to other women who have also been subjected to the horrors you have witnessed.
I listened to the testimony of 10 women, 6 who have been sexually defiled and 4 who were left with child by their rapists. All of these women's families were destroyed. Some were raped alongside their daughters and watched as the militias stuffed her body in the village toilet. Two women were snatched from their university and raped by the militias day after day. If they had refused like some of their friends, then they would have suffered the same fate of being raped in public and then killed. At this one school, those who resisted so enraged the militia, that they began to systematically shoot every other girl in retaliation. By the time the machetes stopped hacking, 50% of the girls were dead. We listened to women who fled to the bush after witnessing crazed children and women slaughter their families but then return back to the village after hearing announcements from the local minister that the killings would stop. When they returned to the community, the women and girls were snatched up and brutalized so much that some girls died on the spot while being raped and others were so traumatized they couldn't move.
Nearly 25% of Rwandan women have been sexually assaulted. We saw women 14 years after being raped suffering forever with machete wounds and broken rib bones. Some contracted HIV from their rapists and nearly half of the women spoke of getting fistulas after being assaulted daily for 3 months. Today these women leak bloody urine and refer to themselves as being handicapped. Sexually based violence not only leaves physical and mental scars, but it completely demoralizes the victims and terrorizes the female sex, sending warnings to those who are not raped yet.
One woman who was sexually assaulted later found out she was pregnant by her rapists and until she came to Sevota, she couldn't speak. There are still women who haven't spoken, 14 years after the events that started in April 1994. For these women, they might be terrified of speaking out because some survivors who testify are killed in the middle of the night. Some women can't speak because they are enveloped in a constant state of trauma. They say they have nothing to live for, their families gone, homes demolished and futures destroyed. I kept envisioning each woman, surrounded by her 7 or 8 children leading busy, vibrant lives and contrasting it to the woman in front of me today, completely hopeless.
For these women who were impregnated by their rapists, it was excruciating to bear a child for these men who hacked their children in front of their own eyes. One lady told us she was revolted with her fetus and when she returned to her family home when the conflict ended, she only found an uncle and brother who kicked her out as they could not accept a child of the enemy in the family home. When she had her baby, no one from her living family came to the hospital. For many weeks she stayed in the hospital, having nowhere to go until a doctor sent a group of women and children to Sevota. She said her child, now 13, was a very difficult boy and blames herself for his attitude issues because she would beat him a lot when he was young. For many of these women, their sons and daughters are now adolescents asking for honest answers about who their fathers are and they are encouraged to speak honestly about what they experienced to their children.
In April 1994, the people of Rwanda suffered a magnitude of pain that humanity cannot understand. Many of us on the delegation felt conflicted just sitting and listening to these women talk. I was thankful for my notebook and pen because I could focus on writing down every word. Every time I looked up, I was unable to look away from their faces. When each bravely testified for us, the others would have an empty look in their eyes and gaze off into corners, others would have their arms folded on top of their heads, looking down. When some women gave testimony, their frail bodies would shake.
At some points, I felt that their souls were removed when they recounted and in front of us were just bodies of women with broken spirits. I am grappling with the ethics of asking women to share these brutal moments of their lives, but I understand from the UNFPA staff that these can be part of group therapies. Personally, I was relieved to hear one woman say that she was happy that we came all the way from America to listen to them speak, because some people who are a part of their community don't want to hear them speak out.
After only one testimony, I felt not only emotionally shattered and horrified to understand that these were only 10 women and millions of women across Rwanda, Darfur and the Congo were subjected to extreme sexual violence. UNFPA has been an early partner of the women and orphans of Sevota, initially funding the center with 1 million dollars. Today they need medical support for women with fistula, various STIs and those with children asked us to be advocates for them so that their children can attain education. Even though women who were raped are considered survivors, their children born after the conflict are not eligible for educational scholarships that the government offers to surviving children.
The Rwandan government has the responsibility to heal and help the entire country recover from the genocide. It is crucial for Americans to support UNFPA because they are a significant partner with the government, filling in the gaps where the government simply doesn't have the means to support small, district level projects. Interventions on the village levels are crucial because there is still distrust and fear, especially when some of the rapists are released back into the very same villages as their victims. For these women, Sevota is a haven.
The American government is blocking the funds that would support projects like Sevota in Rwanda. Perhaps it is easy for the American politicians to make these decisions when they are not shown how UNFPA support is crucial. I can only invite our President and Congress to come to Rwanda see what these groups work towards achieving.