Remembering Mass Rape During Sexual Assault Awareness Month

By Nicole Fox, Ph.D.

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Photos of Rwandan genocide victims hang in Kigali Memorial Center; Image courtesy of the author, Kigali, Rwanda 2012. 

Last month, Secretary of State John Kerry condemned the terrorist group ISIS for the violent acts they have committed in Iraq and Syria, noting that this violence constitutes what the United Nations considers genocide.  Furthermore, France’s Minister for Family, Women, and Children’s Rights described the atrocities committed by ISIS in Syria and Iraq and Boko Haram in Nigeria as femicide.  The World Health Organization defines femicide as the intentional killing, rape, and torture of women. Feminist author Diana Russell narrows the definition of femicide to “the killing of females by males because they are female,” a bold statement drawing attention to the gendered relationship between perpetrator and victim in sexual violence and the killing of women.

April marks a month of awareness and memory.  In April we pledge to become “aware” of sexual assault: an experience that is reported by 300,000 people, mostly women and girls, every year. Many women across the globe fear sexual violence in April—like every other month of the year— and they perform daily rituals to prevent sexual assault (to learn about macro level prevention visit PIRC’s homepage).

April is a month of awareness in the US and a month of memory across the globe. Annually, April 7th marks the start of a 100-day mourning period commemorating the 1994 Rwandan genocide. During the Rwandan genocide, an estimated 250,000 women were raped, and the majority of survivors of female genocide are either survivors or witnesses of gender-based violence, with many suffering multiple rapes. After many of the men were killed in the early phases of the genocide, the rape and murder of girls and women were commanded by the highest-ranking officials. Genocidal rape and gender-based violence have been documented in every prefecture of Rwanda, victimizing women and girls of all ages, including infants and older adults.

For my research on memorials and reconciliation in post-Genocide Rwanda, I had the honor of interviewing survivors, including many survivors of genocidal rape. Women noted that rape was the rule during the genocide rather than the exception, and that prior to the genocide Rwanda was experiencing economic turmoil. This turmoil made it difficult for men to find work, so when genocide propaganda began, the genocidal campaign presented killing and rape as “work.”  Survivors described how women were demonized, sexualized, and dehumanized prior to the start of the genocide, creating a climate of rampant sexual violence.  In the aftermath, women still suffer over two decades later, and survivors experience significant trauma, severe poverty, and health challenges such as HIV/AIDS.

So what can we make of this month of April—a month of sexual assault awareness, a month for remembrance of genocidal rape, and a month when femicide and sexual violence continues to occur across the globe? I believe it is important to remember that all of these cases are connected. Sexual violence on college campuses is eerily similar to sexual violence during political conflicts. Rape is so rampant globally because we live in a world in which women are devalued economically, emotionally, intellectually, politically, and ultimately physically. Rape takes place within a globalized patriarchal supremacist culture and cannot be disentangled from this context; while the specifics of the environment in which rape occurs do vary, the devaluation of its victims does not. How else might we explain the silence about and tolerance for such brutal acts to such a large portion of our world’s population?


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Nicole Fox, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the sociology department and PIRC member.  She received her doctorate in sociology from Brandeis University.  She researches how communities recover after mass violence paying particular attention to how gender based violence shapes reconciliation efforts and participation.  Her most recent research has focused on post-genocide Rwanda and how survivors of genocide and genocidal rape have rebuilt their lives in the aftermath of such destruction.  Her scholarship has been published in Journal for Scientific Study of Religion, Societies without borders, and the International Journal of Sociology of the Family.

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