Rwanda, like Cambodia, is a place of recent atrocities which I was shocked to learn about in my teens.  Like many, I had a progressive view of history and was surprised that man’s nature had not moved on since ancient cruelty and barbarisms that I vaguely knew about.  Had men really done such terrible things to other men so recently?  Unfortunately, I have now changed my innocent view that atrocities were something only committed in ancient history, and instead wonder if in some areas we might be worse than ever before.  The United Nations Secretary General recently commented during events to acknowledge the 20 year anniversary that:

“The Rwandan genocide was an epic failure of the international community to take action in the face of atrocity crimes…We know more keenly than ever that genocide is not a single event, but a process that evolves over time.”

I was interested to see how Rwanda is doing demographically almost exactly twenty years on from the genocide which occurred in 1994.  During that time over 800,000 members of the Tutsi ethnic group were killed by their Hutu neighbours and Hutu moderates were also eliminated in the killing spree which left a third of the country’s population either dead or in refugee camps abroad. 

Like many parts of Africa, Rwanda has a much younger population than most Western countries, with three in five people below the age of 25. The median age is just nineteen years.   It is positive that most births in Rwanda occur in formal unions and births outside of marriage are rare. There has recently been a rapid drop in fertility from 6.1 children per women in 2005 to 4.6 children per women in 2010.  This can be viewed as good if it means that couples have an increasing respect for each other and the amount of children that they can afford, given their personal situation with regard to access to food, education etc.  However, one also hopes that it is not the beginning of countries like Rwanda facing the same dire fertility rates as the West. 

Western agencies and commentators must be careful not to force the view on African families that the smaller your family the better with no regard for their personal desires and values.  It is well worth noting that when asked Rwandan women often want five children or more.  The number of children desired was understandably much lower during the conflict of the early 1990s, but this number rose as peace returned and in the year 2000 51.6% of women wanted five children or more. Then in 2007 the Rwandan government launched a campaign to promote three children as the ideal family size.   While it has not yet happened, it was debated – and still is – that a three child maximum should be enshrined in legislation.  After that campaign the proportion of women whose ideal number is five children or more decreased to 12.5% in 2010.  Hopefully the legislation does not happen, as it is not the state’s role to dictate to individual families how many children they should or shouldn’t have.

As conflicts like that which occurred in Rwanda twenty years ago, Cambodia in the 1970’s and the Nazi German regime, recede into history, it is so necessary to continue to remember the events which led to them.  Doing so will help us to appreciate the importance of the rule of law and the protection by society of the sanctity of all life.  

Shannon Roberts

Shannon Roberts is co-editor of MercatorNet's blog on population issues, Demography is Destiny. While she has a background as a barrister, writing has been a life-long passion and she has contributed...