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Activists Push Back Against Inequities for Women in Burundi

FILE - Women hold their identity cards as they queue to cast their votes in the presidential election, in Giheta, Gitega province, Burundi Wednesday, May 20, 2020. (AP Photo/Berthier Mugiraneza)

WASHINGTON — As the world celebrated International Women’s Day on Tuesday, activists in Burundi pressed for greater rights and protection of women, particularly those in refugee camps.

Although Burundi has made strides in promoting gender equality and curbing discrimination, more changes are needed, some activists say. They argue that the country of 12 million people must implement laws that do away with outdated customs and traditions such as those that exclude women from inheriting land and property.

"I think we have to come together as Burundian women and speak with one voice to denounce some of the inequalities and discriminations that are somehow tolerated," said Regine Cirondeye, a Burundian women’s rights activist and human rights researcher.

In November, Burundi House Speaker Daniel Gelase Ndabirabe told fellow parliamentarians that "only educated girls and women" had raised complaints about inheritance laws and that "their ultimate goals were to destroy Burundians’ customs and traditions."

Ndabirabe added that he and other government representatives had "talked to the wise people" of Burundi, who "all agreed that if we allowed girls and women to inherit, it would bring more problems. We do not hate our sisters, but time has not come for us to pass a law that allows girls and women to inherit."

Women's rights activists and organizations have vowed to raise awareness about inequities and to encourage lawmakers to swiftly pass reforms that promote gender equality and permanently ban gender-based discrimination regarding inheritance and other issues.

Map of Burundi
Map of Burundi

Cirondeye, the rights researcher, also condemned sexual violence in refugee camps in countries neighboring Burundi. She urged leaders to ensure punishment for convicted offenders, which she said would deter such crimes.

"Sexual violence perpetrated against refugees in neighbor countries and in some areas inside Burundi goes on unabated simply because the culprits are never held accountable and in rare cases get lenient sentences," she said. "I believe that the day sexual predators will receive a sentence that fits the crime, the number of such crimes will significantly decrease."

Marie Louise Baricako, president of the women’s and girls’ peace organization Mouvement Inamahoro, which is based in Kigali, Rwanda, echoed Cirondeye in vigorously condemning violence and injustice against Burundian women, specifically in refugee camps. She expressed optimism for improvement, "but in order for that to happen, leaders need to walk the talk," she said.

"In official statements, gender equality is supported by everyone, but when it comes to implementing all laws and regulations promoting women rights, we see a discrepancy," Baricako said. "It is therefore crucial that leaders see to it that all what they preach, and support, translates into real action."

Baricako also urged men to remember that women are also mothers, sisters and daughters and said they must respect all women as they would their own relatives.

Sexual violence in refugee camps in Tanzania, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo has been rising, Baricako and several refugees told VOA stringers in those countries.

While VOA was not able to obtain data verifying an increase, the United Nations Refugee Agency and the International Rescue Committee reported that pandemic-related lockdowns and other stressors led to an increase in gender-based violence against women who are refugees or otherwise displaced.

This report originated in VOA’s Central Africa Service.