Female Génocidaires: What was the Nature and Motivations for Hutu Female Involvement in Genocidal Violence Towards Tutsi Women During the Rwandan Genocide?

Doctoral Thesis / Dissertation, 2012

56 Pages, Grade: First




- Objectives
- Methodology
- Argument


1. Gender and conflict
- Gender as a social and cultural construct
- Established gender norms

2. The nature of female involvement
- Pre-genocide gender roles in Rwanda
- Who were the female perpetrators?
- What was the extent of women’s participation?
- What was the nature of women’s participation?

3. Women in leadership roles
- Case Study: Pauline Nyiramasuhuko

4. Motivations of ‘ordinary’ women
- Fear and Coercion
- Habit of obeying official orders
- Gendered propaganda
- Jealousy and ethnic rivalry
- Ideology and ethnic racism
- Greed and opportunism





Victimisation of women in times of war, genocide or mass slaughter has been the primary focus of the majority of explorations concerning gender and conflict. Traditionally, women are espoused as victims, at the mercy of male killers and therefore subordinate. The notoriety of brutal, horrific and incomprehensible sexual crimes against women in times of genocide has ensured that reluctance in addressing female accountability has plagued this debate. While examinations of these atrocities are imperative and indispensable in facilitating reconciliation, both psychological and social, this one-sided representation has led to a misunderstanding of the dynamic roles which women play during genocide. Whether supportive, active or auxiliary roles, women have been a vital component in endorsing and sanctioning genocidal violence historically. In Rwanda, some women not only provided assistance and encouragement to Hutu men, but also perpetrated the attacks and incited rape. The suffering of female victims cannot be fully understood without a consideration of the extensive nature of the perpetrators, both male and female. Moreover, quite the opposite of diminishing the value and significance of the victimisation of women, any examination which focuses on female agency re-balances the scales of gender inequality and consequently serves to empower women. Women should not be portrayed solely as victims. Women in the Rwandan genocide were victims and perpetrators, agents and symbols. Gender expectations which propagate the superiority of men both during and after conflict are detrimental to the reconstruction of post-genocide gender identities.


This dissertation aims to reveal the largely unexplored dimensions of the roles of women in perpetrating the violence of the Rwandan genocide. What roles did Rwandan women play in the genocide and what were their motives for defying typical established gender norms? Women are presumed to be innately more compassionate than men. Women are cast as guardians of child and home in many cultures and societies. What circumstances drove women to abandon their established gender identity and commit insidious acts against their fellow women? What motives could have destabilised women’s affinity to their fellow woman? Does this affinity even exist? Addressing the roles of women as perpetrators of genocide, specifically focusing on the Rwandan case, the aim of the paper is to consider questions concerning the agency of women in genocide. Through an examination of gender and ethnicity, this dissertation hopes to establish that under the correct circumstances and in the right environment, in much larger figures than previously assumed or widely recognised, women can be induced by their own reasoning to be involved in genocidal acts as active agents. Women, when given freedom to do so, are as likely to commit atrocities as are men and do not have to be manipulated by men in order to decide upon this course of action.

This research represents a qualitative, interdisciplinary study based on information provided by news sources, ethnic conflict and genocide literature, feminist literature, reports by non-governmental organisations (particularly the International review of the Red Cross), and international organisations including the United Nations (specifically the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda). Primary sources including interviews with convicted killers (especially Jean Hatzfeld’s and Nicole Hogg’s interviews with perpetrators), printed propaganda (from Tutsi hate newspaper Kangura), and oral testimony of female detainees and Rwandan professionals provide the basis for the argument. First, a consideration as to gender theory, gender expectations and feminist theory hopes to reveal a correlation between motivations and gender roles. Second, the paper will evaluate the extensiveness and nature of female involvement. Third, the case study of female genocidaire Pauline Nyiramasuhuko will be investigated. Pauline is a rare case of a female leader during the genocide, yet her story still helps to strengthen the argument that women are sometimes able to assert their own individual agency in times of conflict and when they have the opportunity they can act in much the same manner as men do. Fourth, more broadly, the dissertation will consider the motivations of ‘ordinary’ women in committing the atrocities to attempt to distinguish whether social, political and circumstantial components were unique to Rwanda, and therefore argue that there were particular features which encouraged unprecedented female participation. Finally, the dissertation will conclude by considering the implications of female involvement in the genocide on post-genocide Rwanda, specifically focusing on gender identity and consequent social and psychological reconciliation.

The dissertation will posit that female genocidaires had a multitude of motivations which cannot be neatly categorised. The nature of female perpetrators involvement was largely guided by gender roles scripted by Rwandan society. Reasons for violence and the forms it took were ideologically motivated. Brutal sexual torture and rape and the women who sanctioned it were a foreseeable consequence of gendered propaganda which dehumanised Tutsi women. Women in leadership roles committed violence and ordinary women contributed in their own specific way to the bloodshed in key auxiliary roles, and, less often in outright murder. The dissertation argues that motivations like fear and gendered propaganda influenced women to commit genocidal offences.

CHAPTER ONE Gender and Conflict

Conceptions of gender have been fluid and dependant on social circumstances. Gender is an “intersubjective social construction that constantly evolves with changing societal perceptions and intentional manipulation.”[1] Ideas of femininity in one nation may wholly contradict what it means to be a woman in another. In times of war and conflict women often have the opportunity to bridge the gender barrier and allowances are made for women to embody stereotypically masculine roles.[2] Still, these supplementary roles which women are allocated during times of conflict are generally in addition to obligations which were widely expected of them pre-conflict. Women are thus required to continue with their responsibilities as carers of the family and home, whilst also functioning in an entirely new capacity. Two of the most common roles for women to perform during the Rwandan genocide were looting and espionage. Most Rwandan women were allowed to be involved in the genocide in subsidiary roles, yet others played more direct roles in the atrocities. To what extent altered gender roles consequently affect gender identities in post-genocide society is in dispute and still under scrutiny. Remarkably, in Rwanda, post-genocide women’s roles have gone through a drastic transition. Gender is therefore not a stable construct. Expectations for females differ depending on circumstance, era, age, class, race, nationality and culture, the list could go on. Hence, it is absurd to assume that gender is based upon a biological divide between men and women.

Post-structuralist feminist philosopher Judith Butler has argued that cultural gender and biological sex are a socially constructed phenomenon.[3] Biological sex has formed the foundation on which the construction of gender has been built. In Butler’s view, gender norms are reinforced by repetition and encouraged by a social precedent of accepted behaviour. Gender is therefore a rehearsed act or performance scripted by hegemonic social conditions and ideologies, rather than an innate state which is based on one’s biological organs. We perform the role expected of us by society. Butler has termed this as ‘gender performativity.’[4] In relation to the Rwandan genocide, Butlers views have resonance due to female roles in Rwandan society. Gender performativity in pre-genocide Rwanda could be described as unbalanced, and, for the most part, female gender performances were scripted by a patriarchal culture which endorsed women as second class citizens. Women during the genocide did, for the most part, perform typically ‘feminine’ coded tasks including encouragement, tactical and operational support and espionage. Yet, a significant number of women perpetrated violence themselves. There could be a few explanations for this. One would propose that women, when given the opportunity to enact power denied them for the majority of their lives, wholeheartedly embraced this chance to assert authority. Another suggests that it was a necessary measure as the ferocity and meticulousness of this particular genocide called for the inclusion of all of Hutu society. The success of the genocide, almost one million people were killed in approximately 100 days, relied on full social conformity. Not only because the murder of each individual victim often required more than one killer, but also as a means to promote shared social and ethnic complicity. In this respect, necessity during the Rwandan genocide sometimes outweighed gender customs.

Any discussion concerning the perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide immediately conjures images of a band of machete wielding, brightly dressed, crazed men roaming and hunting for their Tutsi prey in the popular imagination. Men are automatically presumed to be more intrinsically inclined to commit violence in popular perceptions. Yet, while male members of the Interhamwe, public and militia constituted the majority of the killers, there is the lesser discussed component of female genocide perpetrators to consider. Sarah Blizzard has stated that “there are many shocking aspects of the Rwandan genocide, including the incredible speed with which almost a million people were killed, but perhaps the most appalling reality is that women took part as perpetrators of the most heinous crimes, often against other women.”[5] This aspect of female involvement has largely gone unexplored due to precedents which connect agency of violence to men and assume women to be more passive. War and militarisation, for example, are customarily understood as masculine, while civilian and peace-keeper roles are comprehended as feminine.[6] Carol Smart has studied women, crime and criminology from a feminist critique and has asserted that rhetoric concerning crime almost always describes the actor as male. For Smart, it is always his rationality, his motivation, his alienation or his victim.[7] However, despite a prevalence of assumptions which cast the criminal, deviant, killer or agent as typically male, women are just as capable of asserting their agency and committing insidious acts. This view is shared by Marie-Chantal, the Hutu wife of a boss during the genocide, and, as she so astutely observes: “a person’s wickedness depends on the heart, not the sex.”[8] Similarly, a female genocide suspect in Kigali Central Prison has stated that she believes “that women are just as guilty of this genocide as men.”[9] In reality, as Jill Steans has noted, it is probably the case that women's peacefulness is as mythical as men's violence.[10]

Volume 92 Number 877 March 2010

Eva Fogelman expounds ideas that women traditionally have been socialised to be sympathetic towards the needs of others and tend to respond to them in nurturing ways.[11] Fogelman highlights the contradiction in the assumption that women were more likely to rescue Jews than men and puts this inconsistent view in perspective by asserting that men were just as likely to show compassion as women. Conversely, in his essay investigating the rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust, Philip Friedman hypothesised that women may have been more sensitive than men to the ordeal of the Jews, and especially Jewish children, and may have been more prone to help because they were “more easily moved by their emotions than men,”[12] and thought less of the consequences. Fundamentally though, Friedman’s ideas are outdated and based on the assumptions of a patriarchal society. At the end of the twentieth century, popular culture was inundated with an emphasis on the differences between men and women, in particular with their psychological characters. Friedman’s perspective may now be perceived as sexist, not least because he assumes that women thought less of the consequences of their actions. Without socially constructed gender norms which have subconsciously guided these studies, perhaps research would have looked for more probing analyses. Friedman concluded exactly what he was psychologically programmed to assume, that women are more empathetic and therefore more likely to intervene or help others. Principally, women are represented and romanticised as “fragile, removed from reality, and in need of protection in a way that the protector receives substantial honour of success.”[13] Notions of females as ‘beautiful souls,’ an idealistic theory formulated by Hegel via Elshtein,[14] ultimately result in portrayals of women as incompetent, or unlikely to commit violent behaviour.[15] Women are subsequently “expected to be against war and violence, but cooperate with wars fought to protect their innocence and virginity.”[16] Granting males agency and will in the perpetration of violence, this belief system fails to recognise women as correspondingly competent perpetrators of evil. Although women have not been involved in genocide to the same extent as men, a significant portion of women have wilfully and intentionally engaged in war and genocide.

These assumptions concerning women have been formed by expected gender norms and hegemonic social conditions which have cast women in subordinate roles historically. Women are presumed to be more passive, sensitive and empathetic than men. In armed conflict, mass murder and war, female killers become cast as monstrous, evil, unnatural, deviant and sub-human, while men are protectors, saviours, brave and heroic.[17] Female violence therefore falls outside the boundaries of our received narratives and remains formless.[18] Women who commit atrocities are classified as masculine and lose their femininity. Femininity and violence are conflicting forces. Masculinity and violence are complimentary allies. It is for this reason that female killers are sensationalised in both fiction and reality. In history, women who do not conform to expected gender roles and embody typically masculine traits are cast as deviant. For example, historical occurrences of women who bridge the gender boundary and either fight in war time or kill are marvelled at, and often create a legacy. Joan of Arc is the archetypal gender transgressor, depicted in popular culture as manly both in appearance and demeanour. Female serial killers, another prime example of how popular culture champions melodramatic depictions of violent women, demonstrate that brutal women are awed at. Interpretations of the story of American serial killer Aileen Wournos, infamously known as ‘monster,’ have invariably embellished her lesbianism and prostitution. Aileen has been stripped of all typically feminine traits in order to be allowed to be a killer. While these women are a minority, they still demonstrate that women are more than capable of murder, violence and brutality without having been guided by men.

While one would think that instances of female brutality would result in a re-evaluation of gender assumptions, quite the opposite is actually true. Female killers are perceived as the exception, their choices are generally linked to either an inherent, atypical presence of masculine traits or thought to be guided by male manipulation. Masculinity is a recurring motif which dominates any and all portrayals of female mass murderers. In the case of Rwanda, where women conformed to gender traditions and indirectly took part in the genocide by informing on Tutsis or providing support for example, less moral accountability is accredited to them, both by the women themselves and by the courts.[19] Conversely, women who defied gender and cultural stereotypes by choosing to play a more direct role in the genocide have often been labelled evil or non-women. Consequently, these women have been treated with the full force of the law in much the same manner as men.[20] Paradoxically, females who perpetrate violence destabilise the very foundations of feminism by stepping outside the gender barrier which has for so long enclosed feminist assumptions. Violent women thus disrupt feminist images of liberated women as capable, equal and not prone to ‘male’ mistakes or idiosyncrasies such as violence and greed.[21] “Female perpetrators fall outside of traditional discourse on gender roles in war and the Rwanda case reveals that women no longer fit squarely into traditional understandings of females as peace-makers.”[22] In many ways gender roles are shaped by war, but also help shape war and the actions taken during conflict.[23]

Comprehensions of modern genocide, particularly the motives and enabling factors which contribute to these instances of mass slaughter, are incomplete without a consideration as to the roles of women as agents, both active and passive, and as enablers. It is vital to note female involvement in the Rwandan genocide in order to challenge patriarchal dominance. Even when women are recognised as having played a role in genocide other than that of victim they are represented as unnatural. Women are denied all agency and rarely permitted the deserving title of perpetrator. Thus, discourse promotes perceptions “wherein women are not allocated free will in their decision to perpetuate and contribute to genocide.”[24] Often their actions are justified through insinuations of male manipulation. Frequently, females who kill are alleged to have been already living outside traditional gender boundaries before they committed their crimes. Their already established gender non-conformity subsequently serves as a rationalisation of their actions. These women are gender transgressors, and popular understanding of the female perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide has its fair share of insinuations which allude to the killers ‘masculine’ tendencies. But, if one tried, could one not find at least one stereotypically masculine trait present in almost all of womankind? These contentions are mere fabrications. She killed because she was not a mother, or because she was already brutalised, or because she had been subjected to manipulation by her husband are the proclamations which have now become a feature in Rwandan rhetoric.[25] Yet, these are excuses which conveniently allow for the continuation of categorisations of gender which are both a cultural and social myth. Is it not now time that society recognises the equality of all humankind, and, most importantly, admits that all humans are capable of committing the most heinous barbarisms if placed in the right circumstances? To understand genocide it is imperative that we recognise that women can be, and in the specific case of Rwanda that they were, active agents of horrific mass killings and mass rapes.[26] Fundamentally, the perpetual exclusion of women from our comprehension of genocide will invariably generate a distorted image of the psychology of genocide.

In his chapter Gendering Genocide, Adam Jones highlights the direct involvement of women in genocide historically.[27] Women have been involved in genocides including The Jewish Holocaust, Cambodia, Armenia, and of course Rwanda.[28] Jones believes that the gender aspect in Rwanda is more multi-faceted than any genocide in history.[29] Highlighting several key points including an historical gender crisis, a gender imbalance of survivors and a pronounced character of gendercidal reprisals during and after the genocide by the RPF, Jones recognises that although many of these components have been present in other genocides, women’s complicity in perpetrating the attacks is truly unique to Rwanda. Jones has identified that the Rwandan Holocaust is exceptional in the annals of genocide for the prominent roles which women played as organizers, instigators and followers.[30] Using African Rights report Not So Innocent: When Women Become Killers[31] as the basis for his argument, Adam Jones has provided several profiles of female killers including a councillor, a teacher and an administrator for his article in the Journal of Genocide Research.[32] These women all contributed directly to the genocide, councillor Rose Karaushara from Kigali, for example, is accused of ordering the murders of as many as five thousand Tutsis.[33] Jones argues that the Rwandan genocide reveals that the equation of women and peace previously accepted can no longer be authenticated.[34] Due to the unprecedented inclusion of women in these heinous acts, gender assumptions connected to genocide must be altered and extended.[35]

Supporting Jones’ claims which challenge the gendered assumptions of women as passive bystanders in genocide, James Waller, in his ground-breaking psychological study Becoming Evil, argued that female concentration camp guards during the Holocaust murdered as easily as men and were just as sadistic.[36] Despite the pervasiveness of the earlier explored assumptions pertaining to women’s heightened empathy over that of men, Waller notes that female camp guards showed “little noticeable compassion for ‘fellow’ women prisoners.”[37] Waller uses sources which support his claim including trial records, memoir literature and camp administration literature. Another scholar who propositioned theories concerned with criminal women, Otto Pollak, argued that women commit more crimes than official figures indicate. Pollak claims women’s crimes are much more clandestine than men’s and that “the lack of social equality between the sexes has led to a cultural distribution of roles which forces women in many cases into the part of instigator rather than performer of an overt act.”[38] The majority of feminist criminologists over 60 years after he put forward these theories label Pollak as a misogynist whose ideas are detrimental to feminist scholarship. However, some observers approve of his hypothesis that “the criminality of women is largely masked criminality.”[39] It seems that women, when allowed to assert their agency, are just as capable and likely of committing insidious acts as are men.

What is interesting about the Rwandan genocide and the involvement of women is the hands on approach which was a feature of the 1994 slaughter. While female guards and the public during the Holocaust were able to psychologically detach themselves from murder with the gas chambers or simply turning the other way functioning as a psychological barrier, women in Rwanda used machetes and incited rape in a much more extreme approach. The killing tools which each possessed were defined by the culture and technology of the regime. Sharlach has noted that the tools of genocide in Rwanda, mainly machetes, clubs, sticks and other crude weaponry usually meant that several killers per victim had to be involved.[40] Therefore, for strategic purposes, as well as psychological reasons, it was important to include women. Rwandans did not have the means to distance themselves. Mamdani has pointed out that unlike the Nazi Holocaust the Rwandan genocide was not carried out from afar by a small percentage of the population, nor hidden from view, and required full cooperation of the Hutu community, including women, who cheered their men and functioned in vital auxiliary roles.[41] This fact begs the question as to whether Rwandan women were more naturally barbaric or brutal than other female genocidaires in history. Or whether there was something more powerful about the motivating factors which drove them to kill. One argument would assert that women who are denied authority in society, as the majority of Rwandan women were, are more prone to grasp at any power they can appropriate. Another may affirm that there was a profound ideological atmosphere which was bolstered by propaganda which meant women were likely to participate, and this theory will be discussed later in chapter four.


[1] L. Sjoberg & C. E. Gentry, Mothers, Monsters, Whores: Women's Violence in Global Politics (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), p. 5.

[2] S. Blizzard, ‘Women’s Roles in the 1994 Rwanda Genocide and the Empowerment of Women in the Aftermath,’ Georgia Institute of Technology, http://smartech.gatech.edu/bitstream/handle/1853/11577/blizzard_sarah_m_200608_mast.pdf?sequence=1 (2006), p. 7.

[3] J. Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990), pp. 135–41.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Blizzard, ‘Women’s Roles’, p. 33.

[6] Blizzard, ‘Women’s Roles’, p. 7.

[7] C. Smart, Women, Crime, and Criminology: A Feminist Critique (London: Routledge, 1976), p. 177.

[8] J. Hatzfeld, A Time for Machetes: The Rwandan Genocide: The Killers Speak (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005), p. 102.

[9] N. Hogg, ‘Women’s Participation in the Rwandan Genocide: Mothers or Monsters’, International Review of the Red Cross, 92, 877 (2010), p. 69.

[10] J. Steans, Gender and International Relations: An Introduction (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1998), p. 92.

[11] E. Fogelman, Conscience and Courage: Rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust (New York: Anchor Books, 1994), ch. 13.

[12] Philip Friedman, Roads to Extinction: Essays on the Holocaust (New York: Jewish Pubn Society, 1980), pp. 411-14.

[13] Sjoberg & Gentry, Mothers, Monsters, p. 4.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Sjoberg & Gentry, Mothers, Monsters, p. 165.

[16] Sjoberg & Gentry, Mothers, Monsters, p. 4.

[17] A. Jones, Gender Inclusive: Essays on Violence, Men, and Feminist International Relations (London: Routledge, 2009), p. 148-149.

[18] J. B. Elshtain, Thinking about Women and International Violence, in Women, Gender, and World Politics: Perspectives, Policies, and Prospects, edited by P. R. Beckman & F. D.Amico (Westport, CT: Bergin and Garvey, 1994), p. 115.

[19] Hogg, ‘Women’s Participation’, p. 70.

[20] Hogg, ‘Women’s Participation’, p. 70-71.

[21] Sjoberg & Gentry, Mothers, Monsters, p. 1.

[22] Blizzard, ‘Women’s Roles’, p. 6.

[23] Ibid.

[24] H. Gulaid, ‘Ordinary Women: Understanding Female Agency in Genocide Perpetration,’ Asbarez (2011) http://asbarez.com/93363/ordinary-women-understanding-female-agency-in-the-perpetration-of-genocide/ [accessed 2/3/2012]

[25] C. Sperling, ‘Mother of Atrocities: Pauline Nyiramasuhuko’s Role in the Rwandan Genocide’, Fordham Urban Law Journal, 33, 2 (2005), p. 116.

[26] Gulaid, ‘Ordinary Women,’ (2011)

[27] A. Jones, Genocide: A Comprehensive Introduction (London: Routledge, 2006), p. 481.

[28] Jones, Genocide, ch. 13.

[29] Jones, Genocide, p. 481.

[30] Ibid.

[31] African Rights, Rwanda: Not So Innocent: When Women Become Killers (London: African Rights, 1995)

[32] A. Jones, ‘Gendercide and Genocide’, Journal of Genocide Research, 2, 2 (2010), pp. 185-211.

[33] A. Jones, ‘Gender and Genocide In Rwanda’, Journal of Genocide Research, 4, 1 (2002), p. 83.

[34] Jones, Gender’, p. 88.

[35] Jones, Gender’, p. 89.

[36] J. Waller, Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 267.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Otto Pollak (1950), as cited in Patricia Pearson, When She Was Bad: Violent Women and the Myth of Innocence (New York: Viking, 1997), pp. 20–21.

[39] Ibid.

[40] L. Sharlach, ‘Gender and Genocide in Rwanda: Women as Agents and Objects of Genocide’, Journal of Genocide Research, 1, 3, (1999), p. 387-388.

[41] M. Mamdani, When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism, and the Genocide in Rwanda (Oxford: James Currey Ltd, 2001), p. 5.

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Female Génocidaires: What was the Nature and Motivations for Hutu Female Involvement in Genocidal Violence Towards Tutsi Women During the Rwandan Genocide?
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female, génocidaires, what, nature, motivations, hutu, involvement, genocidal, violence, towards, tutsi, women, during, rwandan, genocide
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Leila Fielding (Author), 2012, Female Génocidaires: What was the Nature and Motivations for Hutu Female Involvement in Genocidal Violence Towards Tutsi Women During the Rwandan Genocide?, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/199827


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