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20 March 2017

Burundi: Defying the increase in violence

After ten generally peaceful years, the security situation in the post-war country of Burundi began to deteriorate drastically in 2015. Political crises usually have a negative impact on women’s rights. So how can women’s rights organisations give women and girls hope for a better life in spite of this situation? Our staff member Karen Knipp-Rentrop visited the East African country recently and met the psychologist Bertille Bumwe. The young Burundian is defying the developments in her country and continuing to fight hard for better women’s rights.

“The mood on the street in Burundi is very oppressive. It all feels a bit strange since there are no open gun battles, but when you talk longer with the people you notice that below the surface it is anything other than calm. There are many reports of people disappearing and being arrested for no reason,” explains Karen Knipp-Rentrop, who is the Great Lakes Region Officer at medica mondiale.

Consequences for women’s rights in Burundi

The situation in the country deteriorated drastically after the Burundian ruler Pierre Nkurunziza had himself elected for a third term of office in spite of widespread protest. More than 300,000 people have fled to neighbouring countries, fearing repression and insecurity. President Nkurunziza is putting increasing pressure on the population in his efforts to secure his power during his disputed third term. The scope for action by non-governmental organisations is being reduced. Violence is increasing. As in almost all crisis regions, women’s rights are suffering because of this.

More rape but fewer women speaking out

This is confirmed by Bertille Bumwe, who works as a psychologist at our local partner organisation “Solidarity of Burundian women in the struggle against AIDS and malaria” (SFBLSP). “One consequence of the current crisis is an increase in rape but a decrease in the number of women speaking about it.” In spite of this, Bertille Bumwe continues to work for the rights of women and girls in her country. When asked about her motivation, she replies: “Many girls still cannot go to school. I would like to help them. I would also like to support women to gain an outlook in life again. I want to represent them and give them a voice. When I listen to the women I can help them to continue their life. It is an honour for me to support women in this way.”

Real stories: Diane’s neighbours are astonished*

Many of the stories encountered by Bertille and her colleagues are very sad. However, again and again they are able to bring about lasting changes for the better in the life of individual women. They all gain hope from this.

One of them is Diane*, who had no help looking after her four children. Her husband spent all the family’s money on his own enjoyment and left none for his children’s school money. When Diane wanted to join a women’s group at SFBLSP he tried to stop her. However, encouraged by the solidarity among the other women, Diane found a way to attend the meetings. Now she is taking part in a literacy course and has received a micro-credit. This financial support helped her to set up a small agricultural business and gain a little independence in her life. The young woman relates how even her neighbours are astonished by her development. A psychosocial counsellor from SFBLSP is also helping Diane to deal with her marital problems. The measures are having an impact: Diane’s situation has improved. Her husband has become more peaceful and she is gaining in self-determination. “I look to the future more optimistically,” she told the staff in our partner organisation.

Each woman with fresh confidence makes the effort worthwhile

This story shows how living in a crisis region remains a challenge even with support. Society changes very slowly and in small steps. Nonetheless, Bertille and other like her know this, which is why she studied psychology and is trying to change ways of behaviour. It is the remarkable women like Bertille and Diane whose tenacity and stamina will help to make a difference in their society in these difficult times.

*The name has been changed to protect the person.