Speaking Nearby Genocide

Whenever Professor of English Gerise Herndon is asked to discuss what happened in Rwanda in 1994, she makes a delicate distinction. “I’m speaking nearby genocide, not about it.”

Having met hundreds of survivors, Herndon is careful not to sound as though she comprehends the inhuman horror of those 100 days in which extremist Hutus killed 1 million Tutsis and moderate Hutus and raped a half million more. She will not objectify or trivialize what happened. Nor will she blink or turn away from it.

Those 100 days shredded the country. Three out of four Tutsis and one in five Rwandans were dead. More men than women were killed, skewing Rwanda’s overall population to around 70 percent female. Of the 500,000 Rwandan women who were raped as part of the genocide, Herndon estimated that 70 percent contracted HIV.

Seventeen years later, Rwanda is deeply scarred, yet remarkably resilient. There are uncounted stories of warm regeneration and forgiveness. In her global studies series lecture, Herndon described one survivor who couldn’t walk following her attack. Herndon played a short video clip from her 2010 sabbatical research trip. “Today, she dances.”

Female Representation in Rwandand Parliament (click to enlarge)

In describing the country’s reconstruction, reconciliation and resurgence, Herndon is just as careful as she is in detailing its destruction. “It’s easy to romanticize the recovery,” she said, calling it a mistake to frame the recovery as a tidy and happy ending.

While Rwandans continue to grapple with the aftermath of the genocide, society and government have taken root with a newfound sense of gender equality. That equity movement in response to the genocide is what drew Herndon, director of Nebraska Wesleyan’s Gender Studies Program, to Rwanda for her sabbatical study. She spent much of her sabbatical year in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, researching women’s groups. There she saw many examples of women coming together and acknowledging the violence they suffered—violence that is too often shrouded behind victims’ shame.

Gender equity has become a national priority. Rwanda’s new constitution in 2003 required at least 30 percent of the nation’s parliamentary and cabinet seats to go to women. In 2008, Rwanda’s parliament became the world’s first to hold a female majority.

Stephanie McCrummen of The Washington Post wrote, “One result (of that female majority) is that Rwanda has banished archaic patriarchal laws that are still enforced in many African societies, such as those that prevent women from inheriting land. The legislature has passed bills aimed at ending domestic violence and child abuse, while a committee is now combing through the legal code to purge it of discriminatory laws.”

Herndon applauded the country’s zero tolerance policy for corruption in government. Rwandan Senator Aloisea Inyumba told Herndon in a recorded interview, “There is nothing special about women’s participation (in Rwanda’s parliament). We just try to do things the right way.”

When Herndon told her that only 17 percent of the U.S. Congress was female, she shook her head. “Our policy makers are very gender sensitive,” she said. “I do not know why other countries cannot learn from that.”

Herndon contends that they can. She believes that Rwanda can also benefit from gender studies in the nation’s universities. During her sabbatical, she helped develop a gender studies curriculum for the nation’s first gender studies department within the Centre for Gender, Culture and Development at the Kigali Institute of Education.