How do you tell your child that she was born after rape? Experiences from Rwanda


Godelieve Mukasarasi and Simone Lindorfer

How do you tell your child that she was born after rape? Experiences from Rwanda

Dealing with the past for mothers of children born after rape is essentially about telling the truth. How can this be done in ways that do not reinforce the socially imposed silence but instead contribute to healing? The text reflects an experience from Rwanda.

During the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, between 250,000 and 500,000 women, mostly Tutsi, were sexually abused – many of them systematically raped and frequently tortured. Many of these women became pregnant. An untold number tried to abort, while others gave birth, but abandoned or killed their children afterwards. Around 2000-5000 children may have survived and, even today, are called children of “bad memories”, “hatred”, or “bad luck”.

While these children’s life experiences may differ, common to them all is the fact that they are living signs of the attempted annihilation of one group by another.

Genocidal rape, as an act of genocide, is clearly intended to annihilate the other group, not “only” the individual woman, since women’s bodies are considered to represent the identity of their community. The destruction of the “other” group through rape is, at its extreme, symbolised by the resulting pregnancies: the new lives are living reminders of attempted death. This logic is so powerful that in Rwanda, many survivors and their children are systematically ostracised by their own families to this day.  They are equally often hated by the families of the perpetrators, since the women are blamed for having sent “their” men to prison. And, as they remind their mothers of the genocide and its perpetrators, many children were severely neglected as babies and severely abused throughout childhood. The mothers and their children are frozen in silence, since their stories are not “allowed” to be told.

Telling the truth

“When I learned the truth, this made me peaceful; when she told me everything, I felt close to her… Today, when they say bad things about my mum, when they say that I was born of a killer… it absolutely does not affect me, because I now know the truth of the violence my mother went though, of my origin and of my identity.” (M., a girl born after rape in Rwanda)

In 2006, the Rwandan NGO SEVOTA and other agencies initiated their psychosocial approach for mothers who are survivors of rape through “forum Abiyubaka”, a project funded and technically supported by medica mondiale e.V., Cologne. The word “forum” comes from Latin, and means a place – real or virtual - where people meet and share ideas. Abiyubaka means “the women who rehabilitate themselves”. The name underlines the importance of a community as a vehicle for healing. By meeting in a protected space as a group of survivors for more than a year, the mothers learn to rebuild their self-esteem. Most of this therapeutic work is done by the women themselves: in small groups, they share their past and create their future. One central step during this journey is “telling the truth” to their children. The mothers themselves are in control of how to master this step, but SEVOTA, through its psychoeducation and self-reflective methodology, makes it clear that there is no healing without the truth. A crucial part of this experience, described in many testimonies, is that the women and their children both cry together and ask each other for forgiveness for all the hatred that they had felt towards each other and for the intense violence that the mothers inflicted on their children. Asking for forgiveness seems a paradoxical act, since neither of them is “responsible” for the destructive dynamic between them, but it is spontaneous and profoundly liberating. It is as if they symbolically break the vicious cycle of genocidal destruction and replace it with the narrative of rebuilt maternity. They feel proud of their children like mothers do in a loving relationship.

Dealing with the past through a trauma lens

What is similar both in modern trauma therapy and in the logic ingrained in dealing with the past as portrayed in this example is that what is actually healing is not the “mere” act of breaking the silence. What makes a difference is telling the truth in a profoundly new and juxtaposed context: The mothers first have to work on their lost sense of dignity through finding a community that accommodates this pain. In the community of the mothers, the dominant narratives about children born of rape are reworked into a story that gives the experiences of rape survivors and their children an existential home.

Such work, however, cannot be limited to therapeutic spaces – it is necessarily political. SEVOTA has continuously challenged the government’s longstanding neglect of this particular group of survivors of the genocide, who have yet to receive any support from the state. In a changing societal context, many more mothers and their children whose stories are still untold may find the courage to deal with their painful past.

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Godelieve Mukasarasi is the founder of Solidarity for the Development of Widows and Orphans to Promote Self-Sufficiency and Livelihoods (SEVOTA), while Simone Lindorfer is an international trauma work specialist and technical advisor to Sevota on behalf of medica mondiale.

Issue: Trauma

Exposure to trauma and bereavement is common in conflict-affected regions. It affects indivduals and whole societies. Enjoying peace after the crisis is often impossible. How helpful is trauma resolution to the prevention of future conflicts? Who does trauma therapy address? Are there best-practice examples in post-crisis countries?

Guest moderator

Cordula Reimann, from core

For many organisations working in development and peacebuilding, trauma prevention and trauma sensitivity have become important guiding principles of their work in general and their specific activities on Dealing with the Past in particular.

In this edition of the FriEnt blog, we could win academic scholars and practitioners to reflect on their analytical concepts and practical experiences around trauma work and why this concept is relevant for successful dealing with the past processes and how it can be translated and applied in the actual peacebuilding practice. Trauma work refers here to all pro-active approaches and strategies to address and transform the destructive dynamics and consequences of trauma and traumatization on both an individual and a collective level.