In addition to the breakdown of economic, social, and cultural structures, the 12-year civil conflict in Burundi led to a dramatic increase in gender-based violence (GBV) in the country. Women and girls in Burundi are widely viewed as inferior and often subjected to violence. Some sayings which exhibit the attitudes surrounding females include: Umukobwa ntamwana which means giving birth to a baby girl is worth nothing, or Ntankokokazi ibika isake iriho which means that only the man should wear the pants. Common cultural practices in Burundi include forced marriages, such as the marriage of a widow to her brother-in-law or father-in-law, severe punishment for rejecting a forced marriage and killing females who get pregnant out of wedlock.
In addition to negative cultural attitudes toward females, many factors in Burundi contribute to the prevalence of GBV, including the stress surrounding widespread poverty, limited access to job opportunities and land for cultivation, as well as misconceptions regarding AIDS – some in Burundi believe that having sex with a virgin can cure the disease, which is increasing the vulnerability of young women and children to GBV. The recently amended Burundian penal code still does not grant women the right to legacy (only men are entitled to inherit property if a family member passes), recommends light sanctions to perpetrators of GBV and omits rehabilitation (including psychosocial support and reintegration into family and community) for GBV survivors.
From 2007 to 2010, International Medical Corps implemented GBV programs in Bururi, Makamba and Rutana provinces in northern Burundi to provide psychosocial assistance to survivors, raise awareness of GBV and strengthen the capacity of health professionals on clinical management of GBV sexual violence. With U.S. Bureau of Population Refugees and Migration (BPRM) funding, International Medical Corps collaborated with local health authorities to train and equip health centers, improve the quality of services for survivors and strengthen the capacity of community-based associations including youth groups and women’s and returnee associations.
Using a knowledge, attitude and practice (KAP) survey conducted in these three provinces, International Medical Corps identified practices and beliefs contributing to GBV, which were then used to define key messages to raise awareness among the target population. Prior to beginning these activities, International Medical Corps identified five community-based organizations (CBOs) in each province. A meeting was then held with the selected organizations, community leaders and community members to validate the selection, explain the project and define main activities for implementation. A training session was set up to provide volunteers with the skills to conduct community sensitizations and provide support to people in need. On a weekly basis, International Medical Corps collaborated with local CBOs to disseminate GBV messages through songs, dances and theatre performances as well as messaging through local radio stations. This communication strategy provided an opportunity to reach a large portion of the target population and to support human rights and raise awareness of Burundian penal codes with regards to GBV.
“GBV is a key issue in our province and only the synergy of the effort on a long-term basis can help overcome the cultural barriers and local beliefs,” said the Rutana Provincial Health Director. “The way we are working with the implementing partner, International Medical Corps is definitely one of the most sustainable strategies to improve women’s and children’s rights as it involves all community key actors.”
International Medical Corps trained 150 community based health workers (CBHWs) on raising awareness of GBV at the community level and encouraging survivors to seek services. Workshops were held with security forces, judicial bodies and administrative institutions to raise awareness on the Burundi Family Code, a law that outlines women’s and children’s rights as well as GBV prevention. Key messages centered around: a) what the population should know (women and men have equal human rights according to international law, interpersonal violence is a violation of human rights, where survivors can go for help); b) what the population should believe (women and men are equal, interpersonal violence is wrong and unacceptable, survivors of violence deserve assistance, not blame); and c) what the population should do (not commit acts of interpersonal violence, support and assist survivors, seek support for GBV, avoid stigmatization of survivors, etc.).
From September 2008 to August 2009, International Medical Corps supported 516 survivors of GBV in Rutana and Makamba and 218 survivors in Makamba and Bururi from September 2009 to August 2010. 214 health professionals were trained on clinical management of GBV sexual violence and 87 health facilities were equipped with drugs and devices necessary for quality treatment. This resulted in an increased number of reported cases to the health facilities, contributed to the reduction of stigma and promoted positive attitude and behavior change to prevent GBV.