American Univesity of Beirut

‘The Mother of Atrocity’ – Pauline Nyiramasuhuko’s Role in the Rwandan Genocide

​​​By Zeina Al-Khalil

On April 6th 1994, Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana was assassinated when his plane was shot down with missiles. A Hutu, his assassination triggered ethnic tensions between the two major Rwandan ethnic groups – the Tutsis and the Hutus – as the death was blamed on a Tutsi rebel group. These divisions helped spark what we now know as the Rwandan genocide. Prior to the genocide, racist hate ideology was spread through the media, with the purpose to divide the country and exclude the Tutsi community. The most influential media source was Radio-Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM), whose rhetoric is considered to have been partly responsible for the slaughter of Tutsis by Hutus. Over the course of four months, nearly eight-hundred-thousand Tutsis were killed (seventy percent of the Tutsi population). Of the many casualties were women who had suffered large-scale SGBV (sexual and gender-based violence), including rape.

SGBV inflicted on Tutsi women during the genocide is of much interest to the feminist community today. Genocide scholars who take a feminist approach argue that rape in the Rwandan genocide should be referred to as a political tactic implemented with the intention of targeting a specific gender – a process labelled as “gendercide". Thus, rape in genocide must be differentiated from rape during war. Genocidal rape is more atrocious in that it constitutes a mechanism to annihilate a target civilian group through systematic SGBV. This was evidenced in the forced impregnations that took place in Rwanda. Tutsi women were raped by Hutu militants in an attempt to symbolically wipe out the target ethnic group – the Tutsis. Gendercide targets women because they are symbols of the family and the household. Inflicting women with AIDS leads to the long-term destruction of their community; such diseases rapidly spread to the males, who are considered the stronghold of that community. Hence, by carrying out such acts of violence on Tutsi women, genocide perpetrators' acts move from the women's body to the extended family, and ultimately to the nation.

Leading up to the deadly Rwandan genocide, Hutu and Tutsi populations were dangerously segregated by The Hutu nationalist genocide ideology which associated Hutus with “Black power" (a political slogan for African self-determination) and Tutsis with Belgian “colonial" power. Known as the “mother of atrocity", Pauline Nyiramasuhuko was the former Minister for Family Welfare and the Advancement of Women in Rwanda. She became the first woman to be convicted of genocidal rape after having militarized and verbally instructed militiamen – including her own son – to rape Tutsi women during the Rwandan genocide. On July 18, 1997, the female SGBV perpetrator was arrested in Kenya by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR). Before becoming the “minister of rape", Pauline Nyiramasuhuko was a social worker who advocated the education and empowerment of Rwandan women. Shockingly, she ended up orchestrating a plethora of crimes against those very women. She was recalled explicitly commanding Hutu men: “Before you kill the women, you need to rape them".

It remains a mystery how Pauline Nyiramasuhuko had managed to motivate all these men to rape, torture and massacre their victims. Nonetheless, this case shines light on the role of female state actors in perpetrating life-force atrocities and exacerbating SGBV against other women during conflict. The international media was particularly interested in Nyiramasuhuko as it was the first time a woman was legally charged with committing rape. Fixated on her gender, the press paid considerable attention to her motherly physical appearance which seemed to contradict the unforeseen truth that the “mother" of atrocity was indeed the perpetrator of the murder and rape of countless women. Nyiramasuhuko therefore challenges the pre-existing dichotomy of women as peaceful bystanders in conflict and men as the violent combatants. Questioning the normative framework that women play a peaceful role in war destabilizes the global political order. Furthermore, her involvement in SGBV during the Rwandan genocide defies the commonly-held myth that women are incapable of executing sexual violence in conflict. Sexual violence is a crime that had been previously considered to be dominated by the male gender. Perhaps the most astonishing point is how despite being a woman herself, Pauline Nyiramasuhuko passionately supported the infliction of SGBV against other women. Contemporary researchers claim that the centuries of Tutsi women being favored over Hutus for their “sexual superiority" was a large enough incentive for Nyiramasuhuko to instigate the mass-rape of Tutsis.

In spite of that, Nyiramasuhuko later denied those accusations, attempting to shift focus from her key role in the genocide to her alleged advocacy of peace in Rwanda. This is showcased in her popular interview on BBC Newsnight's feature on women perpetrators, in which she uses the widespread belief of women as the mothers and nurturers to her advantage. In doing so, she comes off as a promoter of peace-building between Hutus and Tutsis rather than the perpetrator of SGBV against Tutsis. Although Pauline Nyiramasuhuko was arrested following her crimes against humanity, many women could escape post-war accountability due to the focus almost always being on male-executed violence. This is due to the binary opposition viewing women as targets of violence and men as its perpetrators, which makes the process of post-war accountability more complex. With that said, Nyiramasuhuko's story paves the way for a re-evaluation of our definitions of violence and its perpetrators. It becomes easier to visualize women in both the victim's and offender's shoes, allowing for a richer discussion on the role of women in conflict.



The minister of rape; Rwanda's Pauline Nyiramasuhuko - accused of inciting rape, murder and mutilation - is the first woman on trial in an international court for genocide:

“Rwandan Women and War" in Women and War in Rwanda: Gender, Media and the Representation of Genocide:

The Death Toll of the Rwandan Genocide: A Detailed Analysis for Gikongoro Province ​​

Contact Us

For various questions, please try contacting us via social media first!
read more

Privacy Statement

We take data privacy seriously and adhere to all applicable data privacy laws and regulations.
read more

Copyright and Disclaimer

Written permission is needed to copy or disseminate all or part of the materials on the AUB website.
read more

Title IX, Non-Discrimination, and Anti-Discriminatory Harassment

AUB is committed to providing a safe, respectful, and inclusive environment to all members of its community.
read more