10 Jun 2014

Why we must recognise the needs of the children of rape

It’s easy to be cynical about summits, and – like most journalists – I am. But it’s hard not to support this week’s Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict.

It’s not that I think the new international protocol they hope to sign will make an immediate difference to women and girls at risk of rape right now – of course it won’t. But any high-level effort to draw attention to the issue matters, and – over time – putting sexual violence at the centre of peacekeeping and war crimes investigations could make a difference.

Last week I visited the village of Kibilizi in southern Rwanda, where a group of women have spent the last 19 years trying to bring up the children of rape. All Tutsis, the women had been raped by Hutu men during Rwanda’s genocide 20 years ago. This wasn’t a random act of violence – there was a plan to force Tutsi women to have Hutu children and to break their spirit. The women struggled to accept the babies, often beating and cursing them, sometimes even trying to kill them.


Olivier, left, can’t bear to hate the man who raped his mother, Epiphane.

It’s only with the help of a counsellor, Marie Josee Ukeye, that the mothers have learnt to love their children. For seven years she has held twice-weekly group therapy sessions in the village. She has also worked with the children, now aged 19, who have – unsurprisingly – picked up their mothers’ trauma.


Josiane, 19, is both affectionate and resentful

Unlike genocide orphans, the children of rape don’t qualify for Rwanda government assistance and most aid projects concentrate on the mothers. But helping the children is equally important – they are victims too. At 19, the children of rape in Kibilizi have exactly the same ambitions and dreams as any other Rwandan of the same age: to go to university, to travel, to get a good job. But they are held back by extreme poverty, lack of confidence and stigma.


The women help each other till the land as their family members were killed in the genocide

Sexual violence happens in all conflicts, but knowing that is not the same as accepting it. Recognising the needs of the children of rape is as important as acknowledging and trying to ameliorate the suffering of their mothers.

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Read more: Rwanda 20 years on: the tragic testimony of the children of rape, by Lindsey Hilsum, The Observer, 8 June 2014

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