“I won’t wait for justice, I’ll go out and find it”

More than 16 years after the genocide in Rwanda, thousands of survivors are still waiting for justice on war crimes. CAFOD supports a paralegal scheme, which equips ordinary women with legal skills so they can fight for the rights of their families and communities.

Liberaté Mukagihana, 45, says the genocide nearly ‘broke’ her. She lost eight loved ones in the ethnic atrocities of 1994, when one million people were murdered in 100 days. She recounts her story in vivid and shocking detail, including the moment her young son was beaten to death while she cradled him. Hours later, her brother was buried alive next to his nephew’s body.

It has taken years of counseling, but Liberaté is no longer a broken women. In 2007 she went through a court case to bring her son’s killer, a village chief, to justice. Unhappy with the result, she appealed against his sentence – and won.

Today, she is one of 80 women, who, thanks to your support, are trained as paralegals by our partner AVEGA. The women, many of whom did not go to school, live and work in Rwanda’s poorest communities, providing doorstep advice on complex legal cases including murder, rape and land

“We do this for free, as volunteers, committed to improving our lives, not lining our pockets,” says Liberaté.

In 2001, the Rwandan government brought in ‘gacaca courts’, a traditional system of community-based justice to deal with over 100,000 genocide perpetrators and relieve strain on the country’s overcrowded prisons.

The courts rely on local people as witnesses and judges, and have plunged many into a legal arena they know nothing about. “Most poor people don’t know their rights,” says Liberaté. “Some of my neighbours are illiterate. But suddenly they are expected to understand court documents.”

The volunteer paralegals provide vital support, helping to demystify legal procedures for hundreds of genocide survivors.

Fighting the systemLiberate

Gloriose, 43, is one of Liberaté’s clients. Kidnapped and gang raped for three days in 1994, she is still severely traumatised. In December 2008, her case finally came to court. It should have been a chance for Gloriose to see justice delivered but she describes the trial as a ‘joke’. “I wasn’t given a summons. They arrived on the day and expected me to drop everything. In court, I wasn’t allowed to speak. Because I couldn’t give evidence, my case made no sense.”

Unlike many women who have been silenced by an unfamiliar and threatening legal system, Gloriose had support. With Liberaté at her side, she escalated her case to the National Commission for Gacaca. “It felt different, like I was being listened to,” she remembers. “The court met in private. After hearing the facts, everybody agreed the men were guilty.”

The defendants, who were already in prison for murder, were also sentenced for rape. Two of them have been imprisoned for life as a result. “I still feel sorrow, but I think the verdict was fair,” says Gloriose.

“Liberaté gave me the strength to keep fighting. As well as legal support, she helped me emotionally. Whenever I was overcome, Liberaté would take me outside, wipe my tears and make me calm. She will be a lifelong friend.”

To date, Liberaté has helped more than 20 women near her home in Gasaro village, eastern Rwanda, to get justice for genocide crimes. “It proves that we don’t have to put up with abuse. The law is on our side, but we must fight for our rights,” she says.

A new future

In 2008, Rwanda’s female members of parliament made history by becoming the first in the world to outnumber their male counterparts. They now make up 56 per cent of seats in parliament, compared to 19 per cent in the UK.

And with women like Liberaté working for justice at a grassroots level, it’s clear to see why Rwanda is making great strides towards meeting the United Nation’s international millennium development goals for promoting gender equality and empowering women.

“The genocide has changed women,” explains Liberaté. “We have become more political. We don’t want history to repeat itself – we want a future of peace. But if we want to create change, we must change.

“I believe women are natural negotiators and peacekeepers. Our skills are increasingly important. If we unite for justice, we pave the way for a peaceful Rwanda. We can teach our children that reconciliation and forgiveness is the way forward, not anger and resentment.”


CAFOD is the official overseas development agency of the Catholic Church in England and Wales. CAFOD believes that all human beings have a right to dignity and respect, and that the world’s resources are a gift to be shared equally by all men and women, whatever their race, nationality or religion. Underpinning CAFOD’s work is a deeply held set of values that are central to its ethos and identity. We act based on principles of compassion, solidarity, stewardship and hope.

Photo 1 and Photo 2: Liberate Muhanginana helping others in the community. [Photo credit: Cafod]