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10 November 2017

Women’s rights heroine Godelive Kanyamuneza: "People need to learn that every single person is valuable."

When we asked her what her strengths were, Godelive Kanyamuneza referred to her organisational talent, her expertise and her leadership experience. However, it would appear that her greatest strength might actually be her talent for persuasion and motivation. Within a few short years she has succeeded in establishing a safe house for young single mothers in her crisis-torn country, Burundi. The women and girls were thrown out by their families because they unwillingly became pregnant.

“I have often seen how young women land on the street simply because of an unplanned or unwanted pregnancy,” explains Godelive Kanyamuneza. “Some were so desperate they abandoned their babies or threw them on the rubbish dump.” Most of them had experienced sexualised violence. As a nun, she told her fellow sisters about her idea of a house in the capital Bujumbura to provide shelter and support for the mothers-to-be. With a small start-up grant, she was able to put her idea into action in 2013.

Since then, the Maison Marthe Robin has become a well-frequented contact point for women and girls in need. Godelive started with two rooms: she did not expect so many women and girls to turn up. A larger house soon became necessary. The conflict in Burundi has continued to escalate in the past two years, so she moved her project into a house in the centre of the city, where it is safer. At the same time, she was studying psychology and social work at the University of Burundi.

The house is funded exclusively by donations. Her tenacious commitment has helped Godelive attract a network of voluntary support, including the nearby hospital, where the young women can give birth without charge. She also benefits from material donations such as children’s clothing or food.

Peace and prospects

“When the girls arrive, they are often apathetic, quiet, depressed and forlorn,” says Godelive. Some of them are also undernourished or suffering from infections. The house director takes them in, helps them calm down, and supports them before and after the birth. In the final weeks of their pregnancy and immediately after the birth the women receive extra rations of food, to help them gain strength. Furthermore, each of them is given a parcel with things a baby needs, such as nappies and baby bottles.

The women can benefit from the expertise of two trainers to learn sewing and cooking, or even book-keeping and marketing skills to start a small business. If they complete the training, they receive a sewing machine or a small grant to help them take the first steps towards an independent life. If the girls want to return to school to take their school-leaving exams, Godelive tries to find a way to finance this for them. She also has further ideas for future skills she would like to help the women learn, such as basket-weaving or jewellery production.

Round-the-clock care

Godelive lives together with the young women and children in the house. Her day begins early at six with prayers, before she wakes the women. Each of them has specific household responsibilities, from laying the table or making tea, to washing up. At 7:30 am they all sit together at the breakfast table. As some of them go to their training courses or lessons, the others take care of the children and the cooking.

In this way, they learn to assume responsibility for themselves and others. The tasks also help the young mothers – who are often barely more than children themselves – to learn valuable household and childcare skills. The sense of community and mutual support in the house helps the women to cope with their new routine as the mother of a baby, and to find their courage again. Above all, it is Godelive’s tireless commitment and heartfelt care which gives the women strength and fresh confidence.

Aiming for a return to their family

The young mothers generally stay for 3 to 6 months. 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 continue to visit, or Godelive visits them in order to see how they and their children get on. However, she says the economic crisis and growing poverty is making it more difficult for them to return to their families, where every additional person is often seen as a burden. Nonetheless, her powers of persuasion often win through.

A house of hope

Godelive’s motivational powers have also had their effect on Bella (name changed). There has been a noticeable improvement in the vitality of the young woman since she appeared on the doorstep of the Maison Marthe Robin a few months ago, exhausted and very pregnant. She is learning quickly on the sewing course and enjoys being together with the other women here, knowing that none of them are pointing an accusatory finger at her.

“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 calm and confidence.” Together with Godelive, she recently visited her family and showed them their grandchild. The future looks promising.
Read Bella’s story

Appreciation and respect for dignity

The 45-year-old nun draws primarily on her faith for the power to carry out her mission. But she also draws courage from the sight of the women smiling again and happily taking care of their children. Her desire is to empower the girls, so they can defend themselves more effectively against violence and discrimination. “People need to acknowledge the value of every single person and respect their dignity,” she says. “Violence and ostracism have to end.”

Background to the medica mondiale series

“Women’s rights heroines in the focus” Truly equal rights for women and men are still not reality – anywhere in the world. But without them there cannot be an end to sexualised wartime violence and there will not be peace – anywhere in the world. During the year we will present remarkable women and men from all over the world who have been or are active in the fight for the rights of women. We do this to pay tribute to their individual efforts and achievements, and also to remind us all that active commitment is still needed if we are to achieve gender justice and an end to sexualised violence.

Further women's rights heroines:

26-year-old legal expert Shakiba Amiri at Medica Afghanistan is working to ensure that women and girls receive justice.

During the Kosovo war Sofije was raped. Today she is fighting for justice for women who survived sexualised violence.