Domestic violence is a serious, yet underreported
problem in Burundi. Activists and politicians say traditional practices that
justify violence, attitudes that discourage women from speaking out, and
women's limited economic options often keep them in abusive situations. Some Burundians are agitating
for changes in the law and cultural attitudes to protect women against such
violence and give them options for a
better life. Cathy Majtenyi recently visited the central African nation and filed
this report for VOA.
Francine Nijimbere recalls the night she woke up to
find her arms being hacked off her body.
The man wielding the machete was her husband, enraged
that she had given birth to a girl, her daughter Crista Bella.
Crippled, she is now almost helpless.
As for her husband, he was imprisoned for three
years, then released, and then re-incarcerated again following a public
campaign and outcry.
Nijimbere says, “When he was out of jail for the
first time, he said he wished he could have cut off my head, not just my arms.
He said he was returning to jail because of me."
Because of the severity and high-profile nature of
her case, at least Nijimbere's husband is behind bars - for now. Most perpetrators of domestic violence serve
little or no jail time.
Marie-Christine Ntagwirumugara is a Member of
Parliament and president of the Association of Catholic Women Jurists.
"There are no laws on domestic violence,”
Ntagwirumugara said. “If a woman has been beaten badly by her husband, one will
ask her to explain what happened. If you press her to explain, she will retract
her complaint because women are unwilling to say what happens in the
Violence against women is a growing problem in
Burundi, the tiny central African country that is just emerging from more than
a decade of civil war.
Ntagwirumugara says there are no official statistics
on the incidence of domestic violence. Yet according to a survey conducted by
her organization, one out of every three women in the capital Bujumbura is
being beaten at home.
Activists say domestic violence is viewed as normal
in Burundi. Some traditional practices even encourage wife beating.
Women are afraid to speak out when it does occur for
fear of reprisals, and the culture prohibits them from expressing their
Mireille Niyonzima heads a women's rights group.
"It is very difficult here in Burundi to talk
about women's rights,” Niyonzima said. “According to customs, women do not have
rights in many areas. When someone talks about women's rights, it is somehow a
revolt. In our culture, a woman has rights within the house. In the past, she
could not go to school or do other things except in the house. Now she can work
or go to school but still she has no right to decide anything."
Because their options are so limited, activists say
most women have no choice but to put up with whatever ill treatment they
receive at the hands of their partners.
Women's rights groups are lobbying Burundi's
parliament to change the law to protect women against domestic and sexual
They also are helping women to learn how to earn
their own income, so they can become
Self-help groups have been formed by and for women in
Burundi. Some 500 so-called solidarity groups are now functioning across the
country under the auspices of the humanitarian organization, CARE. Here, women
gather weekly not only to share their stories and support each other, but also
to pool their savings to offer members revolving loans.
With the loan she received from her solidarity group,
28-year-old Donate Nizigiyimana was able to start a small business selling
fruits and vegetables.
Before this, Nizigiyimana and her four children often
went hungry because her husband spent the family income on alcohol, and would
beat her when she had no food to cook for him.
"Before the group, my life was so bad, but now
things are going well,” Nizigiyimana said. “Before, I could not even talk about
my life but after talking to the group members, I am calm and at ease. Women's
associations are important in Burundi because women can sit together and share
their problems with one another and try to find solutions together."
She urges women facing domestic violence to get out
of the house, join groups, and tell their stories to others to get the support
they need to change their lives.