From its founding in 1995 by a group of 50 widows trying to cope with life after the 1994 Rwandan genocide, AVEGA Agahozo has grown to an organization that includes among its members more than 20,000 widows and more than 71,000 dependents and orphans. AVEGA is an acronym for Association des Veuves du Génocide (Association of Widows of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide). "Agahozo" is kinyarwandan for "dry one's tears."
Between April and July 1994, a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed in Rwanda. In 1995, Odette Kayirere, who had lost her husband in the ethnic violence, heard about a group of surviving widows who were providing support to each other. Days later, Ms. Kayirere, who was left to raise her six daughters by herself, started AVEGA East in Rwamagana, eastern Rwanda, a branch of AVEGA that has grown to more than 4,000 members. AVEGA Agahozo was created to promote the general welfare of genocide survivors, to build solidarity among members of the organization, to work with other organizations having the same objectives, to fight for justice and to participate in the rebuilding of Rwanda.
To achieve its goals, AVEGA set up four departments: Medical; Advocacy, Justice and Information; Administration and Finance; and Economic and Social Operations. Of the 300,000 to 400,000 survivors of the Rwandan genocide, widows outnumber widowers ten to one. Having been witnesses to atrocities committed and, in many cases, having suffered extreme violence themselves, many of these survivors still cannot talk about their experiences. Sexual violence was often used to humiliate and degrade women during the killings, with between 250,000 and 500,000 women raped during the 100 days of violence. Traumatized and ashamed, many of these women are only now seeking help because of illness. More than 47,000 women are currently receiving medical treatment through AVEGA, including regular medical care and regular home visits for those suffering from AIDS, and nutrition support for the more than 1,500 AVEGA members receiving antiretroviral therapy for HIV. Each of AVEGA’s three health centers is now open to the general public and receives at least 6,000 patients annually. AVEGA offers individual and group counseling and trains women in trauma healing.
AVEGA has also played an important role in assisting widows to gain justice in court for crimes committed during the genocide, including the murder of loved ones, rape and loss of property. According to Ms. Kayirere, who is the National Coordinator of AVEGA Agahozo in the Eastern Province and manages the day-to-day activities of the organization, many women never went to school and do not know their rights. AVEGA helps them fight for their rights by offering advice on how to seek justice and even accompanies them to court when needed. Originally, when many widows were unwilling to testify, AVEGA sent hundreds of trainers into the villages to teach others how to testify. In national, international and community-based gacaca courts, an estimated 800,000 perpetrators have been convicted so far. AVEGA also played an important role in having the draft genocide law in Rwanda amended to recognize all crimes of sexual violence as Category One, rather than a lower-category offense. This ruling has helped to reduce violence against women in Rwanda. AVEGA has trained 80 women as paralegals and is now teaching widows and orphans about land law as well. AVEGA has been at the forefront of the movement to assert and ensure the rights of women in a historically patriarchal society. Because women had no inheritance rights, those who lost husbands in the genocide were left with nothing. AVEGA lobbied parliament, judges and journalists until the organization succeeded in getting a law in November 1999 that gave widows the right to inherit land and a husband’s property.
AVEGA has built houses for many widows and orphans, and has provided about 13,000 of its members with shelter. AVEGA has also helped women become involved in income-generating activities, such as animal husbandry, basket weaving and other handicraft. Garments produced on modern tailoring machines are now marketed worldwide. Many of these women, who had been traumatized by the genocide and left without any hope of ever again leading productive lives, have now regained significant self-esteem, and with it a far more positive outlook on the future. As this population ages, however, other challenges lie ahead. Over half of AVEGA’s members are 60 or older, which means declining income-generating potential and a greater need for healthcare and other types of support. In addition, a growing number of the 70,000 orphans now cared for by AVEGA are becoming parents and heads of household and are in need of a growing number of other support services.
For the survivors of the genocide, AVEGA Agahozo remains an oasis of hope. In addition to the many services it provides, its work has helped Rwandans and the international community to understand that the women who survived the genocide are not helpless victims, but powerful catalysts in the political, social and economic rebuilding of Rwanda.