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As Rwanda mourns, the government must do more to address specific needs of vulnerable Batwa community, international rights group says

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As Rwanda commences its week of mourning to mark 20 years after the genocide, Minority Rights Group International (MRG) is concerned about the government’s continued lack of commitment towards the Batwa, one of the most vulnerable communities in Rwanda.

MRG commends the government’s efforts towards reconciliation including through instituting commissions promoting national healing but is concerned that its continued outlawing of ethnicity serves to deepen hidden divisions within Rwandan society.

‘Rwanda has a very tragic history which makes the issue of ethnicity difficult to discuss,’ says Jolly Kemigabo, MRG’s Africa Office Manager, adding, ‘Our view is that first, the Batwa have a right to self-identify and secondly, they are a distinct community with specific needs which can only be addressed through tailor-made interventions.’

With a no-ethnicity policy in place, the government has moved swiftly to remove ethnicity from the national consciousness of Rwandans by omitting its mention from school curricula and national identity cards. And there have been attempts to re-orient Rwandans towards a collective ‘we are all Rwandan’ thinking, which in itself is not a bad thing.

The government has however moved slowly towards bringing all ‘historically marginalized groups’ a term the government wishes to use in the place of ‘minorities and indigenous peoples’,  to the same level of inclusive development and enjoyment of opportunities.

For instance, the Batwa, constituting one per cent of the Rwandan population, have not enjoyed the same pace of justice and development that the rest of the country enjoys. The majority of the Batwa are still involved in the informal sector, doing manual labour. Those who have been trying to develop a local pottery industry are now facing stiff competition from an onslaught of cheap Chinese clayware.

‘All national social protection efforts have got to pay particular attention to the particular situation the Batwa currently face. This will give the Batwa a sense of national belonging as well as uphold their right to identify themselves as a distinct community,’ adds Kemigabo.

The Community of Potters of Rwanda (COPORWA), a local Batwa organization, reports that ‘77 per cent of the Batwa are illiterate (compared to 33 per cent for the general population), 51 per cent have never attended school, 47 per cent have no farmland (four times the national average), and 30 per cent are unemployed (less than two per cent nationally).’

This level of marginalization and discrimination is faced by Batwa communities across the Great Lakes region who today remain among the most invisible and marginalized indigenous peoples.

Notes to editors

  • Minority Rights Group International is the leading international human rights organization working to secure the rights of ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities and indigenous peoples. We work with more than 150 partners in over 50 countries.
  • Interviews available with Jolly Kemigabo, Head of Africa Office at MRG. Contact the MRG Press Office on press@minorityrights.org.

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