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Domestic Violence Considered Serious Problem in Burundi

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 house."

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 views. Again,

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 violence.

They also are helping women to learn how to earn their own income, so they can become economically self-sufficient.

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.