$500,000 Gruber Prize Recognizes Widows in the Hood
June 25th, 2011 by

Left without the legal protection of husbands after the ugly bloodletting of 1994, fifty women stood together in Rwanda to form AVEGA Agahozo, the Association of Widows of the Genocide, and 17 years later they are still helping one another to get on with the business of living. Thank You Gruber for recognizing ‘Widows in the Hood.”

For their work, the group will receive the 2011 Women’s Rights Prize of The Peter and Patricia Gruber Foundation, a $500,000 unrestricted cash award, to be presented in a ceremony later this year.

In a historically patriarchal society, AVEGA has helped to achieve legal reforms that, for the first time, gave Rwandan women inheritance rights, established rape as an act of genocide and defined other crimes of sexual violence as serious crimes.


The group seeks to promote the general welfare of widows through legal advocacy, social and economic development projects, and education, training and other support that contributes to income generation and self-sufficiency. It also operates three health centers and provides medical services to thousands.


Headquartered in Kigali, Rwanda, AVEGA Agahozo provides services across the country and includes among its members more than 20,000 widows and more than 71,000 dependents and orphans. Of the 300,000 to 400,000 survivors of the Rwandan genocide, widows outnumber widowers ten to one. It is the widows and orphans who witnessed the atrocities and, in many cases, suffered extreme violence themselves. Sexual violence was often used to humiliate and degrade women during the 100 days of the violent scourge, with estimates of the number of women raped ranging between 250,000 and 500,000.


Traumatized and shamed, many of these women are seeking help now only because they are ill. For these women, AVEGA is a refuge, providing medical services, psychological counseling, education and training, housing and legal services. AVEGA offers medical help to those suffering from AIDS and has coordinated voluntary testing for HIV for more than 10,000 of its members. It also delivers antiretroviral treatment and wraparound care and treatment, including nutrition support, to more than 1,500 HIV+ women. Last year it introduced a new program to provide educational support to children born to survivors of rape, a particularly marginalized group in Rwanda.AVEGA also assists widows who wish to testify against those accused of genocide. Members are accompanied to court and receive assistance by AVEGA in the resolution of their cases. In national, international and community-based Gacaca courts, an estimated 800,000 perpetrators have been convicted so far. Originally, when many women were unwilling to come forward, AVEGA sent hundreds of trainers into the villages to teach them how to testify. In Kigali, the organization has helped prepare witnesses for testimony in over 150 landmark legal cases.


AVEGA is now teaching widows and orphans about land law as well. It has built houses for many widows and orphans, and has provided about 13,000 of its members with shelter. Women had no inheritance rights before the genocide. AVEGA pushed for reform, lobbying lawmakers, judges and journalists until a law was passed in November 1999 that allowed widows the right to inherit a husband’s property. More recently, AVEGA’s advocacy played a pivotal role in securing the introduction of Rwanda’s first gender-based violence law, enacted in 2009. AVEGA has also helped women become involved in income-generating activities, such as business projects, farming, basket-weaving and other handicrafts. Garments produced on modern tailoring machines are now marketed worldwide.The motto of AVEGA, translated from the French, is “Let not the screams of our martyrs lead to our silence or make us forget.” But while the organization is ever mindful of the past, its focus now is on the future and making life better for tomorrow.(A complete organizational profile is available at http://www.gruberprizes.org.)






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