Ordinary Women: Understanding Female Agency in Genocide Perpetration



“The last decade has witnessed a profound transformation in the treatment of sexual violence in international law” (Balthazar, 43). The International Criminal Tribunal of Rwanda (ICTR), especially, has proved monumental in the incorporation of rape and sexual abuses into international law. The role of women, and perhaps even more importantly the role of sexuality and gender in genocide, has in the last two decades gained increased attention from the international community.

Yet as the genocide discourse evolves to include the victimization processes that occur during genocide, particularly those relating to women, the overall gendered perception of women in genocide, not only as victims but as perpetrators, seems to be missing. Inspired by feminist ideology, Gentry and Solberg propose that women today are continuously being idolized as pristine and pure objects incapable of mass murder and genocidal behavior.

Moreover they argue that convicted female perpetrators, instead of becoming a representation of female capabilities in the perpetration of genocide, are stripped of agency, reducing the severity of their actions to pure happenstance or the result of male manipulation. This paper seeks to address the role of women as perpetrators of genocide, with a specific focus on the Rwandan Genocide and with the aim of indulging questions concerning the agency of women in genocide. As such this paper argues that women can, under circumstances that threaten their own sense of self-worth and status, in much larger numbers than presumed or publicly acknowledged, be enticed by their own reasoning to engage in genocidal acts as active participants.

This paper seeks to address the role of women as perpetrators of genocide, with a specific focus on the Rwandan Genocide and with the aim of indulging questions concerning the agency of women in genocide.

Historical background

For centuries upon centuries Rwanda was a country of mainly three ethnic groups, the Hutu, the Tutsi, and the Twa. Interactions between the ethnic groups had been causal and highly intermixed, especially between the Hutu and Tutsi groups where inter-marriage was a normality. The distinction between Hutu and Tutsis, the perpetrators and victims of the Rwandan Genocide, respectively, had historically been their social status. Before colonization, the Tutsis had been considered of higher social status because they were pastoralists, which was a higher distinction than being a farmer, the occupation of the majority Hutus. However, “the categories were not fixed. After acquiring enough cattle, a Hutu could become Tutsi” (Straus, 20).

Upon colonizing Rwanda in 1898, the German and later the Belgian settlers effectively exacerbated the differences that had existed between the Tutsis and the Hutus, socially constructing the Tutsis as the superior race based on their social status and physical attributes. Through the means of indirect rule, which gave administrative power to the favored Tutsis, the colonizers created a social cleavage between the Tutsis and the Hutus, which portrayed the Tutsis as the direct antagonizers of the discrimination that had been directed towards the Hutus for decades. Resulting from a divide and rule strategy used by the European colonizers, “the Hutu, who were pauperized and deprived of all political power by the Belgian authorities, came to hate the Tutsis as racial enemies and foreign interlopers” (Melson, 329). However, it was the introduction of ID cards in the 1920’s that finally solidified the terms Hutu and Tutsi. Their roles were now rigid and fixed, and in nature highly racialized.

Moreover, in the post-World War II era, new ideas of human rights emerged with the establishment of the United Nations in 1947. The colonizing powers were under pressure as the ideas of democracy and nationalism and of the right to self-determination surfaced in the African colonies. The colonizing powers were also still reeling financially after the war and could no longer afford their colonies. Feeling increasingly uncomfortable with the inequality they had created and “under pressure from the newly established United Nations, Belgium introduced reforms that increased Hutu political representation” (Straus, 20). The Belgians were now eager to implement democracy in Rwanda and decided that the democratic state should be headed by the majority Hutus (although it should be noted that the impending Hutu revolution did not grow out of such democratic principles).

In 1957 “there emerged Hutu-led political movements demanding an end to Hutu subordination and the overthrow of Tutsi hegemony” (Melson, 330). The Hutu revolution of Nov. 1, 1959, encouraged by the Belgians, was externalized by a wave of violence throughout the country that eventually resulted in the abolishment of the Tutsi monarchy. Independence came to Rwanda in 1961, yet as Robert Melson argues, “the revolution of 1959 transformed Rwanda from a Belgian colony that had utilized a Tutsi elite as a subterfuge for Belgian power into a Hutu ethnocracy dressed up as a populist majoritarian democracy” (331), not necessarily a legitimate and representative democracy. One might argue that the political developments in Rwanda post-colonization fostered ethnic nationalism, which was eventually utilized by the Hutu hardliners during the course of the genocide in 1994.

Vilification and dehumanization

Genocidal societies sustain themselves on the willingness and efforts of the perpetrators—men as well as women. The vilification and dehumanization of the perceived threat is therefore a necessary step towards genocide because it enables the perpetrators, who are able to justify their actions based on the stereotypes mass-produced by propaganda. In Rwanda the Tutsis were vilified as threats to the state and as accomplices of the Rwandan patriotic front (RPF), which allegedly wished to create a Tutsi state similar to the one that had existed prior to the Hutu revolution of 1959. The RPF was comprised of Tutsi refugees who in 1959 had fled Rwanda to the neighboring countries of Burundi and Uganda, and again in 1961 as George Kayibanda seized power and spurred a new wave of violence.

The vilification of the Tutsis was therefore closely linked to the RPF. The radio, which was the most important means of propaganda in Rwanda, also made it “ appear as if all Tutsi were in league with the RPF invaders whose main goal was to kill or subjugate the Hutu” (Melson, 335). Hence a mentality of “kill or be killed” arose among the Hutus, a “security dilemma”: Writes Strauss, “The central idea is that in the context of anarchy or war, individuals will attack first to avoid being attacked” (38). The violence intensified with the outbreak of a civil war between the Hutu hardliners (CDR) and the RPF, as the latter invaded Rwanda in October 1990. Every Tutsi was now being viewed as an RPF sympathizer and violent massacres directed towards the Tutsis broke out all over Rwanda. The Tutsis were systematically portrayed as cockroaches, which again reveals the process of dehumanization. Tutsis were a threat to Hutu society and the “Hutu Ten Commandments”—a document that essentially confirms the overt process of vilification of the Tutsis in the 1990’s—highlighted that “…their [the Tutsis’] only goal is ethnic superiority.”

In the Rwandan case, we witnessed an extraordinary mobilization of willing perpetrators and a state that “turned what could have ended as limited ethnic killing and crowd violence into genocide” (Straus, 201). The Rwandan Genocide began on April 6, 1994, only hours after the plane carrying Rwanda’s Hutu President Habyarimana and the president of Burundi was shot down. Hutu hardliners immediately started broadcasting the names and locations of important Tutsi officials, and hundreds of thousands obeyed orders by immediately starting to kill every Tutsi they came across. The prompt and immediate response to the directives given by the Hutu hardliners only testifies to the massive support that can be generated under high-pressure circumstances and how even normal people can become murderers. During times of political and social upheaval, the role of women is often neglected; yet during the Rwandan Genocide, women participated in large numbers. At the time of the genocide women worked as the main architects of the violence and as individual killers in small communities, they denounced victims and looted victim’s homes as well as their bodies, and less frequently, women killed directly, with a variety of modern and more traditional weaponry (Adler, 212). Statistics show that approximately 3,000 women, representing about 3.4 percent of the Rwandan prison population, participated in the Rwandan Genocide (212).

The importance of agency

Our understanding of modern genocide, especially as it relates to the motivations and pull-factors that enable genocide, would not be complete without an open-minded examination of the role of women as enablers and actors of genocide. Women have throughout history been appropriated the title of victim and have been the ultimate bearers of the burden of genocide. Rarely have they been “granted” the title of perpetrator. Even more important is the fact that when women are called out on having participated in genocide, their actions are viewed and understood as unnatural and most likely a result of male manipulation. Thus we witness a discourse wherein women are not allocated free will in their decision to perpetuate and contribute to genocide. It is crucial for our understanding of genocide that we understand that women can be, and in the specific case of Rwanda that they were, active agents of horrific mass killings and mass rapes. The continued dismissal of women from our understanding of genocide will invariably produce a skewed image of the psychology behind genocide.


David Moshman in his chapter “Theories of Self and Theories of Selves: Identity in Rwanda” articulates some concepts that can be used to understand why Hutu women, alongside Hutu men, felt that the Tutsis needed to be eradicated, even if it had to happen by their own hands. Moshman proposes that identity can be used as a guiding concept in our attempt to understand the psychological factors that enable genocide. While identity is in part shaped by our personal beliefs and morals, it is also to a large extent externally induced by our society. In the case of Rwanda, the understanding of “Hutu” and “Tutsi” as not only ethnically different but also racially different created an atmosphere of animosity in Rwanda. Moshman argues that identity helps one understand oneself in relation to others, that it is an abstract manifestation of the values and beliefs that inevitably guides one’s actions. He writes, “an identity, then, is not only a theory of self but a commitment to be a particular kind of person” (Moshman, 194-95).

In Rwanda, we see how identity and the intrinsic commitment to one’s ethnicity in many ways created the leeway for extremist ideologies. Throughout colonial times, with the Belgian authorities spearheading the unjustifiable ethnic categorizations of Tutsis and Hutus, the Rwandan population became conditioned to believe that there was an inherent difference between the two groups (Moshman, 192). This attack on Hutu identity—the attack against the Hutus’ perceived sense of self—eventually enabled genocide, not only for men but also women.

Moshman further argues that while some identities are defined by group or community dynamics, certain identities are defined by the presence and existence of a common enemy. A heightened sense of community can therefore be spurred by a mutual hate for the “other.” In the case of Rwanda this manifested itself in the Hutus rallying themselves around extremist ideologies that sought to not only belittle the Tutsis but also destroy them for good (Moshman, 200).

Women in Rwanda had, along with the men, been equally exposed to the notion of “them” versus “us.” The role of the Hutu woman and her understanding of herself as a vital component of her ethnic group should therefore not be underestimated. As Lisa Sharlach writes, “in 1994 Rwanda, a woman’s loyalty to her ethnic group almost always overrode any sense of sisterhood to women of the other ethnic groups (Sharlach, 388). An extreme case is that of Pauline Nyiramasuhuko, the former Rwanda Minister of Family and Women’s Affairs. Nyiramasuhuko was the first woman to be charged with genocide, for the perpetration of genocidal rape. Notoriously known by her first name, Pauline was charged with two charges of rape, one as a crime against humanity and the other as a violation of the Geneva Convention on War Crimes. According to the indictment, Nyiramasuhuko set up roadblocks in order to identify, kidnap, rape, and kill members of the Tutsi population. It notes that she used her influence to incite those under her authority to commit acts of rape during the genocide (Balthazar, 47).

Pauline had felt a strong hatred towards the Tutsis, and especially Tutsi women. The notion of Pauline inciting rape as a method of destruction reveals how rape was used, not only by men, but in this case by a woman in power, as a way of oppressing and humiliating the Tutsi woman. The latter had, from the time of colonization, been “constructed as more beautiful than the Hutu woman in colonial discourse (…) thus something to be coveted and desired” (Baines, 488). Rape was thereby implemented by Pauline as a way of damaging the Tutsi woman’s spirit as well as her will to reproduce. Rape has become a weapon of war in recent years, an efficient method to shame a community by attacking the population’s reproductive abilities (Nowrojee, 1). Pauline thus became a very influential person within the apparatus that orchestrated the genocide; moreover she was personally responsible for the use of rape as a weapon of war within the genocide. To ignore the wrongdoings of women such as Pauline would be to provide an inaccurate image of the mechanisms that led to such a “successful” genocide.


In their book Mothers, Monsters, Whores: Women’s Violence in Global Politics, Gentry and Sjoberg argue that women today have been stripped of their agency when it comes to perpetuating genocide and mass murder. Women are portrayed and idealized as “fragile, removed from reality, and in need of protection in a way that the protector receives substantial honour of success.” This idea of a woman as a “beautiful soul,” a concept produced by Hegel via Elshtein, portrays women as incapable of violent behavior, “expected to be against war and violence, but cooperate with wars fought to protect her innocence and virginity” (Gentry and Sjoberg, 4). This system of belief, which grants her male counterpart both agency and will in the perpetration of violence, fails to include women as equally capable administrators and perpetrators of evil. The aim of this paper, however, is not to argue that women have been involved in genocide to the same extent as men, but rather to highlight how a number of women have consciously and deliberately engaged in war and genocide. The problem with today’s discourse is that, while there are fundamental differences in the way genocide itself has been defined as a concept by various scholars, genocide as it pertains to gender and gender ideologies remains even less understood. Few studies, apart from the book Rwanda: Not So Innocent—When Women Become Killers by Yvonne Leggat-Smith (1995), which was published only one year after the genocide, have specifically indulged in questions regarding women’s participation in the Rwandan Genocide. Most of the literature on women and warfare, and women and genocide, analyze women’s role from a victim-centered perspective. Gentry and Sjoberg strongly oppose this victimization and in their book recognize that most acknowledgements of women’s participation are accompanied by gendered assumptions about how they came to be involved and emphasize the singularity of particular women as participants (147).

However, as will become clear during the case study on Pauline Nyiramashuko, as well as from the reflections by Rwandan women currently imprisoned in Rwanda for complicity in the genocide, each woman has her own story. Reducing their actions by proposing the singularity of these women is not only a faulty assumption but a highly dangerous one.

The woman who ordered rape

Pauline Nyiramasuhuku was Rwanda’s Minister of Family and Women’s Affairs in the years leading up to the Rwandan Genocide in 1994. Her role as a minister is something to take note of as women in post-colonial Rwanda were extremely underrepresented in government. But today, Pauline stands charged with genocide and crimes against humanity. Known by some as the Minister of Rape, she has become the image of what women involved in genocide are capable of doing. Rape was used by Pauline as a way of degrading the Tutsi women. Although Pauline still claims her own innocence, a number of people who had met with her in the years prior to the genocide have said that she clearly viewed the Tutsi population as a burden, and that her “antipathy toward Tutsis was chillingly clear” (Landesman, 8). Yet, the fact that Pauline, as a minister of family and women’s affairs, would order soldiers and even her own son to rape women before killing them is astonishing. As a woman herself, one would think that she would actively try to stop rape from occurring, not perpetuate it. At the time of the genocide, however, rape had become a way for the Hutus to not only shame Tutsi women, but also to make sure that their reproductive means were destroyed as well—thus prolonging the reach of the genocide.

It seems that Pauline’s “capacity for pity and compassion, and her professional duty to shield the powerless, deserted her… Pauline did possess humanity, but it was in short supply, and she reserved it for her only son, Shalom, whom she had helped turn into a rapist and a killer” (Landsman). Pauline was in many ways obsessed with the act of degrading women. In the beginning, Tutsi women were left alone, and the Hutus only killed the boys and men. Towards the end of the genocide, after most of the male population had been destroyed and killed, the Hutus turned to the girls and women, implementing rape “based on the idea that Tutsi women reproduced the alien other” (Baines, 487). Rape as a weapon of war became a way for the perpetrator to effectively control the population—the woman herself, her husband, her family, and the entire community. Not only would the woman be left to live her life remembering this traumatic experience, but she would have experienced losing control over one of the most basic and elementary aspects of herself, her sexuality. The aim of rape was to ensure that, if the woman wasn’t killed, she would at least “die of sadness” (Nowrojee, 1).

One telling incident of Pauline’s callousness occurred in Butare, Rwanda. After having rounded up the people of the city in a stadium, under the pretense that aid workers from the Red Cross had come to save them, Pauline ordered her soldiers to kill everyone present; women, specifically, were targeted to be raped. One of the soldiers, Emmanuel Nsabimana, has confessed that Pauline gave the rape order. She told the men, right before they were about to burn the women with gasoline (another of Pauline’s orders), “Why don’t you rape them before you kill them?” (Landesman, 2). The way in which these women were raped was also horrific, as “thousands of women were individually raped, gang-raped, raped with objects such as sharpened sticks or gun barrels, held in sexual slavery (either collectively or through forced marriage) or sexually mutilated” (Nowrojee, 1). There is not much documentation on why Pauline was so eager to destroy Tutsi women through the act of rape, but her motives can generally be understood as being the result of centuries of Tutsi woman being viewed as sexually superior to their Hutu counterparts. While Tutsi men were seen as being responsible for the unemployment rates among the Hutus, as the genocide unfolded, educated Tutsi women became targets for discrimination. Women in the capital Kigali were especially “accused of ‘tricking’ employers into hiring them” (Baines, 484).

Sexuality and gender perceptions, as we can see from the experiences in Rwanda, can be powerful. Not only is gender important when it comes to providing a complete picture of what motivated and sustained the genocide, but by incorporating gender into the discourse we are better able to understand how gender can be exploited during genocide.

Confessions from ordinary women

In “A Calamity in the Neighbourhood: Women’s Participation in the Rwandan Genocide,” Adler, Loyle, and Globerman present us with their research on female perpetrators accused of genocide in Rwanda. One of the aims of their research was to “develop a theoretical model explaining why rank-and-file Rwandan women assaulted or murdered targeted victims during the 1994 Rwandan Genocide” (211). Their research was interview based and consisted of a sample of 10 women from a wide variety of socio-economic backgrounds who were imprisoned—having either confessed or being accused and convicted—for their actions during the time of the genocide. They were charged for crimes ranging from assault to murder, and included adolescents to middle-aged women (213). Five were married and five were single; five had lived in urban areas and five in rural areas; nine were Hutu, while one actually characterized herself as being Tutsi; and all had 1-16 years of education. Moreover, most of them worked as farmers, although two had been students (215). The women that actually killed with their own hands were a minority, however. In fact, less than 1 in 10 of the Interhamwe—the Hutu militia—were women.

The women in the study pointed out four very specific reasons why they became involved in the genocide, including confusion and ambivalence about events on the ground; fear of a new social order; disaster mentality; and consonance and dissonance with gender roles. What is interesting with these descriptions is that they all suggest that the women’s behavior was a result of circumstances out of their control. The only point that actually attributed the women with some sort of personal control is that on consonance and dissonance with gender-expectations, which explains how women “while remaining within traditional gender norms…nevertheless lent support to the eliminationist Hutu Power agenda by egging on attack groups, informing on concealed victim, and pillaging property from the dead” (Adler, Loyle, and Globerman. 222).

The women interviewed by the authors offered different explanations. Some were known for pushing socially acceptable boundaries even before the genocide, and thus their actions were not wholly induced by the atmosphere of animosity in the spring months of 1994; rather, there seem to have been aspects of their personalities that allowed them to do the things they did. One woman explained that “there were some bad-mannered girls whose friends were Interahamwe. They must have walked together with their Interahamwe boyfriends and thus saw their deeds. When you keep on exchanging ideas with someone, you may find room within yourself to accommodate those ideas” (Adler, Loyle, and Globerman, 213).

Some of the other study participants said they feared they would be considered Tutsi sympathizers. This fear was not irrational, as Hutus also killed moderate Hutus accused of sympathizing with the Tutsis. One woman revealed: “There came a time when [my husband] tried to sensitize me [to Hutu Power ideology]… I then thought, “this is going to be difficult for me,” but he told me that it was obligatory… Personally I never was on their side, but my husband once said to me, “If you don’t take part, I will kill you myself.” So I agreed to participate” (Adler, Loyle, and Globerman, 223).

It’s important to note, then, that a number of these women participated in the genocide not only because of a personal conviction that Tutsis were evil, but out of fear from threats by men. Thus we see that, just as women were able to reject the gendered perception of who could and could not participate in the killings, so too did men. Women perpetrators, interestingly, were expected to take part in the genocide while simultaneously living up to the expectations that follow being a woman. Traditional gender roles are thus used to fulfill a need for normalcy during times of turmoil. One woman interviewed recalled: “Although they trained and sensitized me, I was never interested… I was trained for one month and then stopped. They then asked me, “Have you mastered it?” And I said, “Yes.” I went home and continued my life, but when the war broke out they gave me a rifle and ordered me to kill people…” The interviewer then asks, “Why did you stop the weapons training sessions?” She responds, “I stopped because I had to take care of my children. I left them home alone and [the Interahamwe] wanted me to train into the evening hours… The kids had nobody to feed them, so I decided to be there for my children (Adler, Loyle and Globerman, 224). These women, who had been trained by the Interahamwe, carried a sense of double duty: Not only did they join the forces, but they also carried out their loyalties to their children, husbands, and extended community.

Studies on the topic of female perpetrators in the Rwandan Genocide have come to the conclusion that there are many different reasons why women decided to kill in 1994. Changing political structures after decolonization, increased Hutu participation in politics, and the creation of a multi-party political system all helped create an atmosphere in Rwanda that, as we see, also had an impact on traditional gender roles. However, it’s important to note that despite the fact that more women participated in the Rwandan Genocide than in other genocides, the number still remains low compared to their male counterpoints.


Research and literature on the role of women as perpetrators and enablers of genocide remain staggeringly meager. However, as the evidence from the Rwandan Genocide suggests, women, in much larger numbers than presumed, can become active and ruthless agents of genocide—and their role and motivations therefore demands great attention. While scholars hitherto have been more concerned, and rightfully so, with the power dynamics between the victims and perpetrators of genocide, studies show that there also exists a need for a renewed focus on the relationship between gender and genocide, specifically the role of gender expectations within the context of genocide. I would strongly argue that a deeper understanding of such relationships can help us understand the various push-and-pull factors that exist among genocide perpetrators, not only on a societal level, but on an individual, as well as gender-specific level. Genocide has never been, nor will it ever be, a static concept, and for this reason it is important that scholars, as well as communities that choose to study genocide, safeguard themselves and their assumptions from becoming overly influenced by societies gendered perceptions of who can and who can’t commit mass-murder. As witnessed in the Rwandan case, when women, as well as men, are faced with factors that strain and threaten their own perceptions of themselves, their status, and their identity, it can have fatal consequences not only for them but for their entire community. Genocide and mass-murder as such does not occur in a vacuum, and it is therefore imperative that we further our study on the role of women in genocide, as well as on the corollary societal effects of social and political turmoil. Only then, I believe, will we successfully be able to uncover the psychology that turns seemingly ordinary women into cold-blooded genocidaires in a matter of months.

Works Cited

  • Adler, N Reva, Cyanne E Loyole and Judith Globerman. “A Calamity in the Neighborhood: Women’s Participation in the Rwandan Genocide,” Genocide Studies and Prevention 2 (2007): 209-34.
  • Balthazar, Sita. “Gender Crimes and the International Criminal Tribunal,” Gonzaga Journal of International Law 10, no. 1 (2006): 43-48.
  • Baines, Erin K. “Body Politics and the Rwandan Crisis,” Third World Quarterly 24 (2003): 479-93.
  • Gentry, Caron E and Laura Sjoberg. Mothers, Monsters, Whores: Women’s Violence in Global Politics. London: Zed Books, 2007.
  • Melson, Robert. “Modern Genocide in Rwanda,” The Spector of Genocide: Mass Murder in Historical Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
  • Moghalu, Kingsley Chiedu. “International Humanitarian Law from Nuremberg to Rome: The Weighty Precedents of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda,” Pace International Law Review 14, no. (2002): 273-305.
  • Nowrojee, Binaifer. “Shattered lives: sexual violence during the Rwandan genocide and its aftermath,” Human Rights Watch, 1996.
  • Sharlach, Lisa. “Gender and genocide in Rwanda: Women as agents and objects of Genocide,” Journal of Genocide Research 1, no. 3 (1999): 387-99.
  • Strauss, Scott. The Order of Genocide: Race, Power, and War in Rwanda. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006.
  • Moshman, David. “Theories of Self and Theories of Selves: Identity in Rwanda,” Changing Conceptions of Psychological Life, edited by Cynthia Lightfoot, Christopher A. LaLonde, and Michael J. Chandler. Psychology Press, 2004: 183-205.

Hodan Gulaid recently returned from Algeria, where she worked as English teacher/cultural ambassador in a refugee camp for Saharawi refugees in Tindouf. The four-month project was funded by the Norwegian Peace Corps. Gulaid holds a BA in international development and social change from Clark University in Worcester, Mass., and her passion lies within the fields of international law, genocide studies, and refugee rights.


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