Women Perpetrators


Genocide has been talked about for decades upon decades ever since the first action took place. “The explosion of public interest in genocide in the 1990s, and the concomitant growth of genocide studies as an academic field, has spawned a profusion of humanistic and social-scientific studies, joined by memoirs and oral histories” (Jones, 15). Scholars have mainly been trying to pinpoint a reason, a blame and most importantly one definition to fit the past actions of these events. A professor quoted in Jones’s book came up with a belief for his definition of genocide: “Genocide is understood to be the state-sponsored systematic mass murder of innocent and helpless men, women, and children denoted by a particular ethnoreligious identity, having the purpose of eradicating this group from a particular territory” (Jones, 19). This very definition points me in the direction of why the topic I am writing about gives a new perspective, one that no one believed to be true: women perpetrators in genocide. It was never thought of until recently that women would be involved in genocidal acts, voluntarily participating in crime instead of the ones being victimized. The main questions being answered in this paper will be:

  • Were women in fact posing as perpetrators in certain acts of genocide?
  • How did they influence the crimes taking place in these specific events:
    • Rwandan Genocide
    • Holocaust Under Hitler’s Regime

Rwandan Background:

Many of my examples come from the genocide that took place in Rwanda. I thought it would be helpful to set up a little bit of information about the background so it is easier to understand the basis of women and what happened in this country.

It is no secret that the result of the Rwandan genocide left mostly Tutsis dead and the Hutus with the blame. There was always a large economic disagreement between these two ethnic groups living in Rwanda. Although their similarities of tradition, language and settlement grew closer, the hatred of each other set them far apart. The thing that sparked the fire of this tragedy were the identity cards enforced by the Belgian colonists when they arrived in Rwanda in 1916. These cards classified the people by their ethnicity, resulting with the Tutsis coming out on top of the pyramid, the more superior group. The Tutsis were treated with more respect and were served with better job opportunities than the Hutus. The rage of the Hutu people gradually towered because of their lacking of fair treatment from the Belgian colonists. The rage soon turned into riots between the Hutu and the Tutsi in 1959, leading to the death of more than 20,000 Tutsi people. In 1962 Belgium granted Rwanda their independence and the Hutus took over as leaders. Economically, the country starting taking a turn for the worse. Tutsi refugees in Uganda began the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) led by a man named Kagame, in hopes to overthrow the president of that time, Habyarimana, a Hutu and return home. After many attacks took place, a peace treaty was signed by the RPF and Habyarimana in 1993. Although the peace was instated, this would not resolve the massacre soon to begin. A year later, Habyarimana’s plane was shot down and all hell broke loose. Starting in Kigali, the largest city in Rwanda, the presidential guard ordered that the political people of the Tutsis were murdered and the mass murders of their Tutsis and some Hutus took place. At this point, everyone including innocent civilians were involved in the murders. There were thousands of people acting in this so called genocide, it was hard to tell who the main majority of gender actually was. As a result, nearly 800,000 were murdered over the course of 100 days.

Women in Genocide


Women are traditionally talked about as victims in the acts of genocide. Because of this, we lack an understanding for the actives ways women take place in these crimes. The basic thoughts of women during the Rwandan genocide are linked to rape and distortion. Challenging the stereotype of gender in genocides such as the one in Rwanda opens our eyes and broadens our perspectives in understanding real roles of women during conflict.

This photograph taken from sources at AllAfrica.com, an African news website, shows a U.S. Official extraditing a Rwandan women convicted for her actions in the Rwandan genocide. Marie-Claire Mukeshimana was “convicted in absentiaby a court in her country for her role in the 1994 genocide” (Nathan). This woman is 43 years old and was sentenced to 19 years in prison for the killing of a handful of children and she marks the second women to be released back to Kigali. She tried to enter the United States in 2010 at the Detroit airport but was denied entry and held in custody ever since. This women is one of hundreds that were convicted after the Rwandan genocide and sentenced to prison for multiple murders.Before they found Mukeshimana and took her back to Kigali, she had left in 2005 and had previously been working at World Vision. The interesting thing about the fact that she worked at World Vision is that this company is a Christian based humanitarian one that helps the lives of children and families with poverty. Today, the United States is partnered with this organization to help sponsor children in Rwanda and give them a better life. We send them seeds for farming, school supplies for education and help build water tanks for fresh water. These women said to be perpetrators in the Rwandan genocide are not all bad. After the genocide ended, this woman was working for such a company that ironically helps children.

To me, this photograph stands out because it really makes me look at this Rwandan women very closely. She looks like a normal citizen, dressed in her everyday clothes, yet she is considered to be a criminal. Rwandan women just like her, who appear to be completely harmless looking, are being feared for their crimes. Which leads me to this…in order to understand why these women are being accused of such murders, as well as men, we have to look further into the gender relations of pre-genocide in Rwanda. Rwandan women were often look at as the inferior to men. They were not considered to be equal to their spouses and their culture believes that “a woman’s only wealth is a man” (Hogg 71). One of the only things women were cherished for was their ability to reproduce for their family. They were strictly held to their few responsibilities such as cleaning and up-keeping the house, entertaining visitors and educating their children. Young girls growing up are taught to be respectful, listen to their elders and to be very polite. One might question why women who are raised to be such obedient people could turn out to be perpetrators in a mass genocide. One of the many motivations, leading to something that is often behind the scenes and not thought about is violence. Many Rwandan women growing up amount to physical violence as a punishment and this is considered to be a traditional thing in their culture. Since women are so inferior to men, they are supposed to just accept these acts of violence. This could be of many reasons why women lashed out in violence in the Rwandan genocide.


This is a photograph taken by Jonotha Torgovnik, previous combat photographer in the Israeli Army, is of a woman embracing her daughter who was born after she was raped during the Rwandan genocide. The woman, Joseline Ingabire gave birth to both of her daughters near the end of the Rwandan conflict. Her husband was murdered in front of her and she was repeatedly raped, even while pregnant. The beauty of this photograph is striking but the pain behind their eyes goes without saying. Violence and rape is one of the motivations these Rwandan women had to take part in murders of the genocide.

Another motivation talked about behind women perpetrators in the Rwandan genocide is fear. Many of these women claim that they were forced by the soldiers to commit these acts of genocide. They were forced to reveal hiding spots of the Tutsis seen during this time of war. Women were very desperate in a sense that they feared what other people would do to their families and had absolutely no trust in relatives and others they thought they once could trust. There is a story of a women who poisoned and murdered her own four Tutsi children on their father’s behalf and felt that by killing them in a softer way, dodging the machete of the solider, would be a better way for them to die. The desperateness of these women were high in rate, and the tension between these two ethnic groups is so strong that the relatives of this women who happened to be Hutu, refused to hide their own flesh and blood.

The aftermath and most importantly the responsibility of the Rwandan genocide continues to be talked about. Women known as “ordinary” were blamed for acts of genocide and other groups of women known as “intellectuals” were blamed as well. The ordinary women were the ones who physically committed the crimes and the intellectuals were the masterminds behind them. Women with leadership positions in Rwanda were convicted of (Category 1) crimes, carrying out crimes against humanity and often received the death penalty. Ordinary women were convicted with Category 2 or 3 crimes and were left in the hands of the gacaca, which meant they could only receive a maximum sentence of the death penalty. Motivations such as violence, fear, and being politically involved are highly looked at as reasons why women perpetrators participated in the Rwandan genocide.


Members of the SS Helferinnen (female auxiliaries) arrive in Solahuette, an SS retreat near Auschwitz. This photo was taken from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

The SS Helferinnen are also known as the female guards in the Nazi concentration camps. A large group, about 3,700 out of 55,00 of these guards in the camps were female. Most of these women were between the ages of 17 and 30.

After the Holocaust ended, many of these SS Helferinnen women were captured and held at an intermittent camp in Recklinghausen, Germany. Just a little under 1,000 women were held at these camps and the U.S. Army investigated the crimes they had committed while serving in the war. Most of these women were later released because it was decided that the male SS were the top priority in convicting for committing acts of murder during this time. Only a handful of SS women were tried for their crimes compared to the SS men. Males still held the power over these women even if they indeed had the same rank and committed the same crimes during the same war. It goes to show that most of the time, women are let free because motivations and such are found, backing them up in believing that it was not in fact them, but something that came over them that made them commit such acts of violence.


This photo is of a women by the name of Irma Grese. She worked at the Nazi  concentration camps at Ravensbruck and Auschwitz. She also was the warden of a specific concentration camp in northwestern Germany, Bergen-Belsen. Grese was later on convicted for her crimes against humanity at the Belsen Trial and pleaded not guilty. Survivors of the Belsen camp had the chance to testify against her. They brought up all of the crimes she was known for while they were at the camp. These crimes included beating prisoners, shooting prisoners, putting prisoners in gas chambers and letting her trained dogs hurt prisoners. It has been said that she tortured these people both physically and emotionally. Grese thoroughly enjoyed shooting prisoners in cold blood and beating up women.  Later she was found guilty and sentenced to death. She was known as The Angel of Death at the camps because of her cruelity. She carried around a whip and pistol everywhere she went. Irma Grese is definitely considered one of the most famous women perpetrators of the Nazi Regime because of her cruel treatment and murders of the prisoners she was keeping.

Connecting Irma Grese’s story to my theories of motivations in women perpetrators of war, her childhood fits right into one of the reasons women bring out a bad side during rough times. As a child, she witnessed the suicide of her mother and ever since this had a great effect on her. One of the reasons she received pleasure out of physically beating women in the camps was because she had such anger and frustration towards her mother taking her own life. “Daniel Patrick Brown, the leading expert of Grese, asserted that she was, already by the age of 9 or 10, deeply influenced by Hitler and the Nazis” (Sarti 109). She was growing up during the time of propaganda and this influenced her ideology greatly. Nazi power was thriving in all areas of Germany and their messages being sent throughout the country stuck with her. Because of these things, she was forced to remain strong and since the suicide of her mother, crime was something that emerged in her doings.

Tying Things Together:

Based on these stories and facts provided, we can not conclude that all of these women were evil based on the acts of crime they committed. Although some were bad people, there were many motivations and reasons behind the doings of their actions. Not to say that what these women did were right, but women perpetrators in genocide were sometimes overlooked. These women, no matter how cruel the crime they committed was, they were not held as nearly as much accountable as men were during this time. The way the world works today almost still feels like this. When women commit a crime, people start to wonder if some crazy motivation or excuse took over her causing her to commit something horrible. When looking at men who commit a crime, people tend to believe they are just a horrible person, without thinking of reasons to back them up. Motivations that I spoke of such as fear, anger and violence help us understand why some of the women considered to be perpetrators of these genocides did what they did. Even when the wars were all said and done, women were not convicted as much as women were for their crimes. Men were the ones sought out and looked for. That aside, women like Irma Grese and Marie-Claire did commit acts of violence in their time of war and they were severely punished for doing so. Just because men are held most accountable for crimes, doesn’t mean that women are not capable of committing the same crimes. Maybe people don’t look at women as doing wrong, but women are just as motivated to commit acts of violence towards other and these women are just a few of the many who weren’t afraid to hold such power.

Works Cited

Hogg, Nicole. “Women’s participation in the Rwandan genocide: mothers or monsters?.” International Review of the Red Cross Vol. 92 (2010): pg. 69-102. Web. 15 April 2012.

Jones, Adam. Genocide: A Comprehensive Introduction, Second Edition. New York: Routledge, 2011. Print.

Sarti, Wendy Adele-Marie. Women+Nazis: Perpetrators of Genocide and Other Crimes During Hitler’s Regime, 1933-1945. Palo Alto, California, Academic Press, LLC, 2012. Print.

Photos from: