National Association of Attorneys General

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Developing Domestic Violence Shelters in Rwanda

Editor’s Note: As part of NAAG’s continuing and evolving partnership with the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement, two members from the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office participated in a unique opportunity conducting training for a group of government and non-government officials in Rwanda on the operation of domestic violence shelters. In September 2016, Kim West, the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office criminal bureau chief, and Stephanie Haven, a paralegal in the office’s Human Trafficking Division, worked jointly to train the small group as it contemplated how best to create and implement a domestic violence shelter operation guide. During this short-term deployment, Stephanie and Kim were able to witness first-hand the changed conditions in Rwanda following the 1994 genocide, which often serves as an international model on transitioning, governing, and reconciliation efforts following a conflict period. Kim and Stephanie worked directly with the Rwandan Ministry of General and Family Promotion and its partners to offer support and provide guidance on how domestic violence shelters tend to operate in the United States. Such information helped Rwandan officials with their goal to assess and identify next steps in executing their plans to get a designated domestic violence shelter fully operational. Stephanie authored this report on their experience in Rwanda, discussing both their professional roles as well as a memorable visit to one of Rwanda’s national parks.

Rwanda has received little attention from the West since the country’s 1994 genocide. Yet, under the leadership of Rwandan President Paul Kagame, the small, landlocked African nation has reinvented itself, and the president has worked to unite its people through their shared nationality rather than dividing them by ethnicities. In some ways, the country has even begun to serve as a model for creating policy that promotes gender equality. For instance, compared to the all-male Parliament before the conflict, more than half of the representatives are now women. Furthermore, with the creation of the Ministry of Gender and Family Promotion (MIGEPROF), President Kagame has recognized the need to dedicate government resources to issues lingering from a longstanding patriarchal society.

The U.S. State Department works with and provides resources to MIGEPROF on a number of these matters, including the creation of a short-term shelter for domestic violence victims. NAAG was asked by the State Department to assist with organizing a training for Rwandan government officials and non-governmental organization workers to learn how domestic violence shelters operate in the United States. NAAG reached out to the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office, at which time Kim West, the criminal bureau chief, was identified to serve as a facilitator of this training given her extensive experience prosecuting domestic violence abusers when she was a local prosecutor. Although our office does not directly handle domestic violence cases, issues of gender-based violence, including sex trafficking, are embedded in many of the cases that Kim oversees. We prepared to share information about our system in a way that would help–but not dictate–how MIGEPROF could build and operate its own shelter.

The MIGEPROF officials had a very clear goal with this training: create a shelter operation guide that MIGEPROF could present to high-level Rwandan government officials for review. With this objective in mind, we split the training between our presentations and all-group workshops, which could then use the issues we had covered to assist in the writing of the guide. In an effort to bridge some language barriers and power through a few technological glitches, we distributed thumb drives with our presentation materials to each member of the audience. Though we had planned a week-long training, we condensed the material to three days upon request. Each of the 15 men and women attending the training had full-time jobs to combat gender-based violence -- and had worked in their offices early in the morning before the training started and, again, in the late afternoon after it finished. The audience’s efforts demonstrate their commitment to establishing a program and guide that met the needs of MIGEPROF. 

Throughout the training we discussed how our admittedly Western-shaped ideas could be modified -- or scrapped altogether -- to fit the culture and values embedded in Rwanda. For instance, there was some pushback in how we tended to refer to domestic violence victims as women. While we agreed that most victims are women, the MIGEPROF plan is to house all victims, including both men and women, in the same facility, which is not something shelters in the U.S. tend to do. Additionally, those in the training did not want the address of the shelter to be confidential, as is common with shelter locations in the U.S. Part of the outreach efforts for the current emergency domestic violence center in Kigali have included radio and billboard announcements about what the facility offers and where it is located. This initiative is something MIGEPROF wants to continue for the short-term shelter. Moreover, even though the United Nations recommends an organization independent of the government operate domestic violence shelters, MIGEPROF, a department of the government, will run the facility.

These culturally-specific conversations were vital to the creation of a guiding document that, we hope, will help MIGEPROF actualize the short-term shelter. Although we only worked with these dedicated individuals for a few days, we exchanged email addresses and ensured them that we would continue to support their mission from afar. While we were not able to see much of the country outside the training space and our hotel, we had arrived a day early to trek through Volcanoes National Park and see the famous mountain gorillas. In addition to the invaluable cultural and informational exchange that occurred during the training, we feel fortunate to have had an unforgettable experience with Rwanda’s wildlife.

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Gurbir S. Grewal, New Jersey Attorney General

Gurbir S. Grewal is the attorney general of New Jersey.