Summary and Keywords
Genocide, defined in international law as killings and related mass atrocities that are committed “with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group,” has negatively impacted countless communities across Africa over the centuries. The resulting historical literature is strongest regarding those genocides that occurred in the 20th and 21st centuries due to a tendency to privilege written sources. Within this literature, African women’s experiences remain understudied compared to the experiences of men, despite widespread recognition that genocides often affect people differently according to their gender identity. However, in looking at the widely studied examples of colonial genocides in Belgian-occupied Congo (1885–1908) and German-occupied Namibia (1904–1908), and the subsequent genocides in Burundi (1972), Rwanda (1994), and Sudan (2003–2008), it becomes evident that perpetrators have targeted women in particular ways as part of their broader efforts to exterminate unwanted communities. While women are frequently killed alongside men during genocides, the literature on these case studies abounds with examples of sexual violence, particularly rape, that the perpetrators inflict upon women as part of their efforts to undermine the social vitality of their intended victims’ communities. Women’s experiences of genocide are often far more diverse than the literature’s singular focus on sexual violence suggests, however. The case of Rwanda demonstrates that women can also serve as combatants and perpetrators, while the case of Belgian-occupied Congo reveals that women can lead resistance movements in opposition to genocidal violence. Similarly, German-occupied Namibia and Rwanda demonstrate that women can serve important roles in rebuilding their communities and advocating for recognition and reparations in the post-genocide period. Scholars are beginning to pay greater attention to women’s diverse experiences of genocide, but there is a great deal of research to be undertaken, particularly regarding how different facets of women’s identities, such as class, ethnicity, and socio-economic status, among others, shape their experiences of genocide.
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