Although the Rwandan Genocide ended in 1994, controversy over culpability continues even today. Beatrice Munyenyezi is accused of lying about her role in the genocide in order to gain U.S. citizenship. The prosecution accused her of being a member of and leading the killing militias. Her defense—shockingly brazen—is that as a woman and a mother, she was incapable of committing mass murder.
Can one be a good mother and still be capable of committing mass murder? If history is any indication, then yes. The most well-known case is that of Pauline Nyiramasuhuko, Beatrice’s own mother-in-law, who used a similar defense. This past June, Nyiramasuhuko made headlines when she was found guilty by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. Refusing to learn from past experience, Munyenyezi’s wayward defense strategy mistakenly hinges on her gender and her status as a mother to prove her innocence.
In 1995, Munyenyezi appeared before U.S. officials in Nairobi, Kenya, seeking refuge for herself and her three small daughters in the United States. Like the tens of thousands of resettled refugees who arrive in the U.S. every year, Munyenyezi wanted a chance at a new life for her family. In 1998, she arrived in New Hampshire. In July 2003, in a district courtroom far away from Rwanda, she became a naturalized citizen of the United States. Years later, Munyenyezi’s murky past began to catch up with her. A federal investigation was launched to determine whether Munyenyezi had lied on U.S. documents about her participation in the Rwandan Genocide. Survivors and convicted perpetrators of the genocide had come forward and identified her as instrumental in the genocide, and a federal indictment soon followed.
Last week, Munyenyezi returned to the New Hampshire District Court to stand trial. The defense team spent a significant portion of its opening arguments establishing a “woman-and-mother narrative” that all but stripped Munyenyezi of her agency and capacity to act. The woman-and-mother narrative is, at its core, an essentialist belief that a woman who is also a mother cannot perpetrate crimes during genocide because she is just that—a woman and a mother. Put simply, thanks to widespread beliefs about motherly compassion, gender norms, and patriarchal thinking, it is assumed that women and mothers don’t hurt others, don’t loot or steal, and certainly do not kill. The defense did not provide any other reasons—no moral or religion-based compunctions, no allusions to moderate thinking on the part of their client. No, it was enough for the defense to assert her womanhood and her motherhood, and her consequent inability to perpetrate genocide.
Rather than challenge head-on the accusations pertaining to her participation in the selection of women for rape at a roadblock set up outside of her residence, Munyenyezi’s defense attempted to pound a square block through a round hole. She wasn’t just painted into the background of the horrific events that ravaged Rwanda in 1994; she was erased from the picture entirely.
Furthering their woman-and-mother narrative, the defense insisted that Muyenyezi was simply too busy caring for her baby and managing her pregnancy. Yes, Munyenyezi was in her first and second trimesters of pregnancy during the genocide. But does that render her absent from the unfolding horrors, or without agency to perpetrate crimes? I wish it could be said with conviction that pregnant women can’t commit atrocities, but my research into Rwanda indicates otherwise. I have interviewed incarcerated women who were pregnant, breastfeeding, or both during the Rwandan Genocide, and still perpetrated crimes. Pregnancy does not inoculate women from extremism, and motherhood does not shield them from the sensitization campaigns that mobilized so many to perpetrate genocide in Rwanda.
Gendered assumptions about female agency and conduct during times of violence ignore the fact that thousands of women have been tried for crimes committed during the genocide, and many are serving out their sentences in jails throughout the country. Suffice it to say, the defense’s woman-and-mother narrative simply does not work.
Munyenyezi may very well be a devoted mother to her three daughters. The exchange that took place between them in the courtroom belied any mental shortcuts that may have been made to paint her as heartless and cold. She loves her daughters. But must you be a bad mother in order to stand at a roadblock and oversee rape and murder on a genocidal scale? Too many instances, from the Holocaust to Srebrenica, prove that you can be a loving parent and still be a murderer.
In the end, Munyenyezi’s guilt should be judged according to the evidence presented to the court and jury, not based on gendered assumptions about female agency during violent upheaval. While a decision pertaining to Munyenyezi’s guilt has not yet been reached, let us at least acknowledge that her gender and motherhood have nothing to do with her capacity to commit genocide. She may not have done it, but as a woman and a mother, she certainly could have.