The U.N. Children's Fund (UNICEF) says it is concerned about the large and growing number of children in Burundi who are victims of sexual violence.  UNICEF says few cases are ever prosecuted and is calling for urgent reform of Burundi's judicial system. Lisa Schlein has more for VOA from UNICEF headquarters in Geneva. 

The U.N. Children's Fund reports that one of the worst legacies of 13 years of civil war in Burundi is the neglect and abuse of the youngest members of that society.  UNICEF says Burundi's children are often victims of rape, made to work as prostitutes, or forced to serve in the army.

The UNICEF representative in Burundi, Bintou Keita, says since peace has come to the country in the last few years, there have been fewer cases of children being put in prison, because of their alleged links with rebel groups.  But she says sexual violence has increased.

"What we have is more and more reporting of cases of rape by people in uniforms against children and given the state of the justice system, it is not easy to perform the sanctions that are normally planned by the law," she said.  "So, it gives [people in uniform] a sense of a kind of impunity." 

Keita says even victims who have the courage to report crimes rarely receive proper treatment from the justice system. 

She recalls visits she made last month to centers for gender-based violence in the provinces of Gitega and Muyinga.  She says that month 50 victims of sexual assault, more than a third of them children, had sought medical and psychological help. She says the centers also tried, with little success, to help the victims prepare their cases for trial.

"But only five went through and not with the result expected," she added.  "So, it gives a sense that, well, we cannot do much, but we can continue advocating and sensitizing.   But something very serious has to be done in helping the country deal with the justice system, the reforms of the justice system and the rule of law in Burundi." 

Keita says UNICEF's priorities in Burundi are protection and survival issues for women and children, and education.   She notes infant and maternal mortality rates are extremely high, in large part because of the country's extreme poverty.  More than half of Burundi's population, the UNICEF official says, lives on less than $1 a day.