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Intended Consequences: WSRC exhibit sheds light on survivors of rape and their children

Published: February 27, 2009
Section: News

intended consequences: The WSRC exhibit on Rwandan children born of rape will be open until April 9.<br /><i>PHOTO BY Max Shay/The Hoot</i>

intended consequences: The WSRC exhibit on Rwandan children born of rape will be open until April 9.
PHOTO BY Max Shay/The Hoot

When Photographer Jonathan Torgovnik first stepped foot in Rwanda in Feb 2006, he thought he was going there to cover the spread of HIV/AIDS in the Rwandan Genocide for Newsweek Magazine.

But upon meeting and interviewing Odette, a survivor of the Rwandan genocide and multiple rapes, Torgovnik’s life was changed.

Odette’s rapes had not only led to her contrating HIV, but also a pregnancy which resulted in the birth of her son, who still lives with her.

“It was the most powerful and sad interview I have ever experienced,” he wrote in the forward of his newest book “Intended Consequences.” “[Odette’s] horrific story led me to return to Rwanda to embark on a personal mission to document the stories of women like [her] and to share them with the international community.

Torgovnik returned to Rwanda numerous times over a three-year period to try to get in touch with as many as twenty thousand mothers who bore a child from rapes committed during the genocide. A photographer by trade, he took a series of portraits, sometimes taking two or three hours to capture the right one, and created an exhibit, which is currently being shown at Brandeis’ Women’s Studies Research Center.

This exhibition, named after Torgovnik’s book, “Intended Consequences: Rwandan Children Born of Rape,” features the portraits and stories of approximately two-dozen survivors of rape and genocide and their children in rural Rwanda.

The exhibit was brought to Brandeis by Margot Moinester ’09 and Noam Shouster ’11 after they were approached by Amnesty International, a primary donor to the project which is holding its Annual General Meeting in Boston this March.

Already a compelling piece of work, the exhibit has special significance for Moinester, who spent her last two summers in Rwanda working with genocide survivors and other HIV positive women.

Moinester, who was able to travel to Rwanda on Brandeis’ Ethics Fellowship grant and later its Davis Peace grant, is excited that she is now able to bring a bit of her summer experiences to the Brandeis community.

“Brandeis provided me with the opportunity to work with the women, and now, with this project, I have an opportunity to share some of that awareness and knowledge with the campus,” she said.

She hopes that it will really open up the eyes of people, even those who have had interaction with genocides previously.

“People don’t usually make the jump that because there is genocidal rape, children are born,” she explained. “It makes perfect sense, it’s just a hard jump to make. This project helps make it more real.”

Though there are commonalities between her experience and Torgovnik’s, they do have one major discrepancy – her experience was in urban areas, while the exhibit focuses largely on rural women. This causes a significant difference between her interactions and Torgovnik’s interviews.

There can be “an immense variation in access to resources,” Moinester said, explaining that usually rural women have fewer of the resources than urban women.

Despite the differences in their experiences, both Moinester and Torgovnik have similar views regarding the women and the importance of not merely victimizing them.

“The mothers…have lived through the most severe torture any human being can endure, and in the aftermath they continue to struggle against multiple levels of trauma,” Torgovnik wrote in his book. “I admire their resilience and courage. They are undoubtedly the strongest human beings I have ever encountered.”

Moinester agrees, and sees this as key to the exhibit.

“Its important to show the hardship and create awareness – but also to frame it in terms of empowerment,” she said. “There are vestiges of genocide, but there is a lot of progress being made.”