How One Woman Is Helping Trauma Victims Heal in Rwanda

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The events of the Rwandan genocide left many with scars that are still healing, but former attorney Emily Gould is aiding recovery through community peace programs. Gould went to Rwanda to explore the role of community mediation after the country concluded its post-genocide truth and reconciliation process. Now, she's working to change the justice system in Rwanda and to address the collective trauma of colonialism and mass violence.

Gould is a founding member of Mediators Beyond Borders and a co-founder of African Peace Partners, which helps support a Rwandan local NGO called Community Based Organization for Peace Education (CBOPE). CBOPE Ihumure is a center where community volunteers support trauma recovery, conflict transformation, and economic self–sufficiency in various Rwandan communities.

“In the West, most cases go to court first and then, possibly, get referred to mediation,” Gould tells CircleAround. “In Rwanda, for a huge percentage of cases, the parties must first participate in community-based mediation before they can go to court." According to Gould, Rwanda’s legal system is very unique and is becoming even more advanced. The country’s truth and reconciliation process, known as Gacaca, was the first mass restorative justice initiative in the world to address genocide. 

Now, a network of over 30,000 locally elected mediators (known as Abunzi) is able to function on a mixed model of restorative justice, mediation, and arbitration. Rwanda is also considering a new Alternative Dispute Resolution Policy that would extend mediation and restorative justice to all conflict and crime, with a trauma-informed approach. 

 “It is the first country in the world to take on such a bold innovation in justice,” says Gould.  

At Ihumure, training is modified for the particular groups participating, falling into three categories: trauma recovery, conflict transformation, and skills for cooperative economic activity. The program also has a Wheel of Peace based on the levels of trauma members in the community are facing and the services they need most.

“No intervention in isolation is effective. Trauma recovery, conflict transformation, and economic self-sufficiency are all integral to sustainable peace,” Gould explains. “Ihumure figured out their own model for integrating these into a program, by which each workshop cohort, whether they begin with conflict or trauma, eventually gets training and support for the three 'pillars' of peace through membership in a peace club that receives ongoing coaching and support.”  

Ihumure also provides professional development for trainers on trauma-informed mediation and trauma recovery. According to Gould, over 3,000 people have participated in these workshops.

Gould tells CircleAround the program has successfully helped many on their road to recovery. In particular, she points to the story of Justine* (name has been changed to protect privacy), a member of the community where Ihumure operates.

“A Tutsi survivor of the genocide, like many, Justine was raped during the genocide and lost most of her family. She survived because she was married to a Hutu man. But when we met her, she was almost completely traumatized. Her husband beat her regularly, encouraged by his family, because she is Tutsi and a rape victim. As is true for many who participate in our trauma-recovery programs, she had never told anyone what had happened to her during the genocide."  

At the end of the program, Justine was elected as the leader of her cohort. She was given a goat to breed, as was another elected leader, who also received a goat. "In an agricultural society, to have a goat is a source of status and wealth," says Gould. "When Justine returned home from the workshop, she began to be treated with respect and she began to heal.” Gould says this gave Justine the strength to face her trauma.

With her husband and 20 other couples experiencing domestic violence, Justine participated in a nine-month conflict-transformation workshop that helped repair her relationship with her husband.  

Gould says, “When we visited [Justine] at her home, she told us that in her community, because of the transformation in her family, she was seen as a mediator and people came to her for advice. In the language of Ihumure, she became a ‘peace artisan.’ Soon she was officially elected as a community mediator. There are over 30,000 locally elected mediators in Rwanda, and it is a great honor to be elected.” 

Gould adds that the center recently began a peace club for women’s drumming, and Justine became a drummer there, performing for the Rwandan president last spring. “When I spoke to her after a rehearsal and asked about her husband, she laughed and said, ‘He’s fine. I have never felt better.’”

In Gould’s opinion, much of Rwanda's recovery can be attributed to the efforts of both the Rwandan government and the NGO community in the country. The impacts are recognized across economic and other social successes, which would not be possible without a process of continuous collaboration and innovation. 

Tags: Social Justice, Volunteering, Empowerment

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Written By

Katka Lapelosová

Katka is a writer from New York City, currently living in Belgrade, Serbia. See Full Bio

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