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Tackling Burundi's sexual violence epidemic

September 21, 2022
topics: Women's rights
by: Robert Bociaga
located in: Burundi
tags: Africa, Burundi, civil war, refugees, sexual violence, UNICEF

As they return to their homeland, many female Burundian repatriates find themselves vulnerable to a wave of sexual violence and exploitation. This further complicates their struggle to rebuild their lives amid political and economic instability.

Editor's note: this article contains descriptions of sexual violence.

Hanging on a nurse’s arm, Marie, a slender 40-year-old woman, walks into a dimly-lit hall, clutching her belly in pain with her other hand as she fights back tears. 

Brought down by a volunteer to a hospital in the small town of Mabanda in southern Burundi, she is about to receive an emergency contraception pill and other forms of treatment after being raped at knife-point. 

Marie is one of many Burundian refugees that have been repatriated (in some cases involuntarily) to their homeland following years of conflict. But on their path to re-integration they encounter a slew of challenges resulting from the lingering social, political and economic volatility in the country, one of which is an epidemic of sexual violence.

In an attempt to tackle this crisis, The UN and CARITAS Burundi have been dispatching trained volunteers to work with local communities. Together, they provide help to affected people and teach community members about gender-based violence and reproductive rights - topics that have been shrouded in stigma.

SEEKING HELP

Marie's attacker was instantly arrested. But this is not always the case, according to residents of Mabanda, who say that rampant corruption in the country often allows a perpetrator to exempt oneself of guilt.

When Joan, 28, rejected the marriage proposal of a neighbourhood boy, she did not suspect it would almost cost her life. After going to fetch water from the stream, she was attacked with a machete, raped and left in the bushes to bleed to death. 

Traumatised, Joan was not able to tell anyone about the attack for over a month. In the meantime, her rapist had fled to Tanzania, and Joan turned out to be pregnant. "The family of the man came to my family to apologise," she told FairPlanet, "but I was not involved. I was left out of their meeting."

At that time, she was counselled by a psychologist from Bujumbura, Burundi’s largest city, through funds allocated by UNICEF. But in November 2021, UNICEF withdrew the funding for that program, citing the financial constraints.

"[The] psychologist helped me to feel better, but I still easily get distracted when I am given things to do," Joan shared. 

The rape has left both physical and mental scars on her. "I do not trust any man," she added.

Sensitisation programs aimed at educating people about gender-based violence and sexual and reproductive health have been conducted across Burundi, but people on the ground express that support needs to be expanded. 

The UN Humanitarian Response Plan for Burundi is currently funded at only 6 percent, and the organisation admits that "the scope of the problem [of sexual violence] is largely unknown due to the absence of comprehensive statistics and underreporting."

The rise in cases of sexual abuse have left many Burundians flabbergasted, with some residents accusing repatriates of promiscuity, further complicating their re-integration.

Furthermore, financial instability has been forcing some women into prostitution, said Emmanuel Noel, the nurse at the Mabanda healthcare center. Agricultural land and job opportunities have become scarce in Burundi after the country plunged into the 2015 political unrest, and repatriates receive financial aid only for one month. 

BETWEEN REPRESSION AND VIOLENCE

Burundi is a small East African nation that has seen spates of violence by competing political fronts. 

Most refugees are members of political parties (or their relatives) who fled their homes due to the fear of being rounded up by the authorities. 

The latest wave of violence broke out in Burundi in 2015, following the announcement of former president Nkurunziza that he wanted to stay in power for the third term, which was unconstitutional. The military responded with violence to the protests and targeted civilians. A coup attempt failed, and the opposition leaders found refuge in Belgium. According to estimates, the conflict left at least 1,700 people dead.

Now, around 600 Burundians repatriate from Tanzania through the southern border crossing every month, and stay for a maximum of three days at the Mabanda transit camp, after which they return to their places of origin. 

Yet despite assurances by the authorities, a significant portion of the more than 333,700 Burundian refugees still do not feel safe returning, as the political situation in Burundi remains fragile. 

Furthermore, according to Human Rights Watch, Tanzania - the country to which the refugees  fled - is no longer a safe place. In 2020, Tanzanian police and intelligence services forcibly disappeared, tortured and arbitrarily detained at least 11 Burundians for several weeks. Some were released and forcibly returned to Burundi.

LIGHT at THE end of the TUNNEL?

Sexual violence remains a highly sensitive subject in Burundi, and well beyond its borders. In eastern and southern Africa, around 20 percent of women aged 15 to 24 years reported having experienced sexual violence. 

Often, shame and stigma deprive victims of family support, and they are left to grapple with their trauma alone with no access to psychologists or other mental health professionals. "When the rape happens, you get humiliated,” said Noel of the Mabanda healthcare center. "Some victims move away to other provinces to avoid it."

But amid the darkness, there is some hope. Local volunteers, previously trained and funded by the UN, are committed to monitoring communities, receiving calls for help and bringing victims to hospitals. 

"Sensitisation programs succeed," said Noel. "Sexual violence is decreasing because of the changing behavior of the people."

The trained volunteers see themselves as responsible for the problem that, in the eyes of some, is new or 'imported' from abroad, and tackle it by professional means. Despite the evident challenges, they work tirelessly to raise awareness on the subject of gender-based violence and are optimistic about the progress in their communities.

Image by AMISOM Public Information

Article written by:
Robert-Bociaga__cropWzAsMTMsNDU4LDQ1OF0_FillWzI4OSwyODld
Robert Bociaga
Author
Burundi
There are old new problems related to safety, justice and economic stability that have been tackling the country for many decades.
Sexual violence remains a very sensitive subject in Burundi and beyond its borders.
The latest wave of violence broke out in Burundi in 2015 following the announcement of the President Nkurunziza that he wanted to stay in power for the third term which was unconstitutional.
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