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18 May 2017

Burundi: A House of Hope

Hidden away in the centre of the Burundian capital Bujumbura is Marthe Robin House. Twelve women and girls, and their nine children, are currently living there. Sometimes this number is higher. The women and girls were thrown out by their families when they became pregnant. Marthe Robin House offers them more than just a roof over their head: psychosocial support and a range of training opportunities also open up chances for the future. Above all, it is the tireless commitment of the director, Godelive Kanyamuneza, which allows and enables the women to regain strength and hope.

Two beds, a length of rope to hang up clothes, a coloured cloth in front of the window as the curtain -- the room that does not offer much space or comfort, and Bella* also has to share it with another mother. Nonetheless, the 17-year-old is happy to have found a safe place to stay for her and her child.

Shelter for Bella

Like all the women in the Marthe Robin House, Bella had previously lived on the street, rejected by her family and abandoned when she became pregnant. Some of the women and girls have also experienced sexualised violence, or been forced by poverty to exchange sexual contact for money or goods. For Bella, it was a boy from her neighbourhood who drugged her with knockout drops and then raped her.

 "When the girls arrive, they are often apathetic, quiet, depressed and forlorn," says Godelive Kanyamuneza.

"Some of them are also undernourished or suffering from infections." The trained psychologist takes them in, lets them find some peace, and supports them before and after the birth. The birth itself usually takes place in a nearby clinic which works together with the women's house. During the final weeks before the birth and the first few weeks afterwards, the women also receive additional food rations to ensure that both mother and child remain strong. Furthermore, each of them is given a parcel with things a baby needs, such as nappies, bottles and blankets.

Ensuring the girls' education and future

During their stay in Marthe Robin House, the women can benefit from the expertise of two trainers to learn how to sew, cook or start a small retail business. If they complete the training, they receive a sewing machine or a small grant to help them start their self-employment. If the girls so desire, Godelive tries to make it possible for them to return to school.

 A normal day at Marthe Robin House:

The day in Marthe Robin House starts early at six o'clock when Godelive wakes the residents. Each of them has fixed responsibilities, from laying the table or making tea to washing up. At 7:30 am they all sit together at the breakfast table. The women who are taking part in courses get the bottles ready for their children before they go to their lessons. The other women staying in the house look after all of the children during the training sessions, and also prepare meals for the whole group. In this way, the young mothers – who are often barely more than children themselves – learn valuable household skills and also how to take on responsibility.

After the evening meal there is enough time to relax, chat and make plans. The community and mutual support helps the women to find their confidence and courage again. A psychologist also regularly visits the house to offer individual guidance to the women and girls.

 Funding by donation

"I often saw how young women landed on the street simply because they are pregnant," explains Godelive . "Some were so desperate they abandoned their babies or threw them on the rubbish dump." When the nun started with two rooms in 2013, she did not expect so many women and girls to turn up. So a larger house soon became necessary. Persistent violent conflict in the country eventually forced her to move into the city centre, where it is safer. Her work is funded exclusively by donations. Her tenacious commitment has helped Godelive attract some 20 volunteer supporters.

 Bella is confident

The young mothers stay for 3 to 6 months on average. Godelive usually attempts to re-establish contact with the family during this time, and her mediation means most of the girls can eventually return home. Many of them come back to visit, or Godelive visits them, in order to see how they and their children get on. She explains, however, that the economic crisis and growing poverty in the country have reduced the families’ willingness to take the young mothers back in. So some of the women and girls move on into shared accommodation.

 Recently Bella also began her sewing course. She proudly shows off a small school uniform she has made. There has been a visible improvements in the vitality of the young woman since she appeared on the doorstep of the house a few weeks ago, exhausted and very pregnant. "This house is a place where we can find peace," she says. "It is like a good mother who embraces you with open arms and gives you peace and confidence." Together with Godelive, she also visited her family and showed them their grandchild. At least that is a start.

 *name changed