“At the time of the genocide and immediately afterwards, perpetrators, victims and international observers were crying for justice. Women fought a war without guns.”
As the world looks on in horror at the bloodshed in Gaza, Mary Gahonzire brings a unique perspective to the role of women in peacemaking and reconciliation. Gahonzire is deputy commissioner of the Rwanda Correctional Service, which runs prisons in the country that 20 years ago was torn apart by 100 days of killing.
More than 800,000 people were killed. But Gahonzire says women were crucial in bringing an end to the violence and in building the post-genocide peace, despite thousands of women not only being widowed but then having to live alongside the people who had carried out the killing. “Women played a critical role as civic negotiators,” says Gahonzire. For a decade after the genocide Rwanda used a form of justice called gacaca, or village courts, named after the grass on which they were held, and 45% of the mediators in these open public trials were women, she says.
“Government was at a crossroads. We had to do something,” says Gahonzire. “Our traditional gacaca system was good because it was participatory. Somebody would come up and report her husband. Someone would come and stand witness against his father. That was a challenge, but they reconciled. We were finding that what divides us is much smaller than what unites us.”
The need for change, post-genocide, also led women like Gahonzire to consider a career in criminal justice. “Many of us, whether young or old Rwandans, realised the need to liberate our country. We had to look for a way to do that and that’s how many of us joined these services,” she explains. Women now account for half of the country’s supreme court judges, 19% of the Rwandan police force, 15% of the army and 20% in Gahonzire’s own correctional service.
As a comparison, in England and Wales in 2012, 27.3% of police officers were female, but only 9.4% of British soldiers were women.
Twenty years on from the genocide, Rwanda has made huge strides, socially and economically, but the country is still battling to combat gender-based violence. Gahonzire acknowledges this, but says there have been a number of changes, many of which she attributes to having more women in the criminal justice system. They include the introduction of a one-stop centre in the capital, Kigali, where female victims can access comprehensive, free services, including medical, legal and police support.
Gahonzire says there is equal effort going into both prevention and getting convictions, based on greater understanding of the need for evidence. “You need the evidence necessary for a case, so it’s not thrown out of court. That means sensitising the community, so they know which bits and pieces of evidence they are going to collect,” she explains. “If you sensitise a victim of gender-based violence, the child will not wash her panty, for example.”
Gahonzire is convinced that having more women in the criminal justice system is bringing about change through community policing programmes and initiatives like the support centre. “These are the seeds planted in Rwanda and slowly, consistently, we see them bearing fruit,” she says.
The question for senior Rwandan leaders is whether women can hold on to the gains they have made in leadership over the past 20 years. While Rwanda is renowned for having more female MPs than men, many of the female parliamentarians at the recent Women in Parliaments conference in the country noted that too often they become deputies rather than heads of organisations – and Gahonzire knows this first hand. She was formerly commissioner general of the National Prisons Service. But when the service was recreated, a move she completely endorses, to become the Rwanda Correctional Service, Gahonzire got the number two job. The head of the service is now a man.