Changing lives in Burundi: "Now I am no longer beaten"

Women in Burundi have won radical changes to the country's Penal Code, making rape punishable by life imprisonment. The taboo of speaking out against sexual violence has been broken and the lives of some women - and men - are beginning to change forever, says Lyduine Ruronona

Lyduine Ruronona
13 March 2012

Read this article in French.

Burundian society has long been accustomed to domestic and sexual violence. These forms of violence surged to devastating levels during the civil war that engulfed Burundi from 1993 to 2005 and much of the violence has continued in its wake. The war shattered the structure and balance of families. During the war, women and girls were raped and beaten by combating forces. Women were also excluded from the decision-making structures by the State. Following the signing of the comprehensive ceasefire agreement by the Burundian Government and the CNDD-FDD rebel group on November 15th 2003, polygamy also took hold. It was mostly men who went off to fight, and many had taken other wives while they were away. As the men returned, former wives were chased from their family homes. Women who had fought in the conflict faced similar treatment: at the orders of their husbands they were banished from their homes.

The phenomenon of sexual violence has become a scourge of Burundian society, and a key concern of the international community. In line with  Resolution 1325, at the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region in 2006 member states adopted the Protocol on the Prevention and Suppression of Sexual Violence against Women, recommending that all states incorporate the dispositions laid out in international law into their domestic legislation.

The Burundian Penal Code of 1981, introduced under the regime of Jean Baptiste Bagaza, was as good as silent on the issue of gender based violence, and to the average Burundian today the idea of denouncing an act of gender based violence is inconceivable. This is particularly true regarding acts of a sexual nature. If the victim ‘happens to mention’ that she has been raped, for example, tradition dictates that her family throw her into a hole alive and wait for her to die. All this without ever condemning the alleged offender. If a woman is maltreated by her husband she is similarly prevented from speaking out against him. Before getting married, the paternal aunt advises her niece that it is totally forbidden for a woman to admit that she has been beaten or maltreated by her spouse; she must keep quiet, unconditionally. If she speaks out, she is sent back to her parents who will in turn reject her. It is therefore presented as in her interest to simply accept all the horror that she might suffer in her home. If a man is maltreated by his wife he is more likely to flee his home. It is harder to get men to testify; they simply do not want their experiences to be known. It is important to recognise that even today this mentality of not speaking out and of not denouncing the perpetrators of these atrocities endures. Violence against women has become a curse that has devastating effects on Burundian society in addition to destroying individual lives.

In 2006, Pierre Nkurunziza’s government announced that it would revise the Penal Code. Aware that the redrafting of a major law is not an everyday occurrence, we were determined to profit from this opportunity. Here was a chance to submit our proposals for amendments on the issue of gender based violence in writing. The Association for the Defence of Women’s Rights and the Women’s Centre for Peace created a multidisciplinary team made up of 20 members of parliament from the three main political parties (the ruling party CNDD-FDD, UPRONA and FRODEBU). The team also included representatives from international and local NGOs working on the rights of women and children, and human rights practitioners including the Burundian Association of Female Lawyers. Our research into gender-based violence recorded 2,347 victims of different forms of violence in 2009, and within this, 48% were cases of domestic violence. It was this alarming situation that drove us to raise our voices collectively and see what we could do to eradicate the problem.

We had no idea that 98% of our proposals would be incorporated into the new Penal Code by the time it came to be validated by the National Assembly!

The old Burundian Penal Code did not distinguish between different forms of violence, such as domestic violence, rape and violence against children under 18 years old. It also lacked clear sanctions for the perpetrators of these acts. This is why, in our propositions we demanded that these crimes to be set out and sanctioned in a clear and exemplary way. In the new code, domestic violence, rape and violence against children under the age of 18 are all well-defined and detailed and the acts themselves are dealt with thoroughly. According to Article 559 of the revised Code, for example, rape is now punishable with life imprisonment and with no possibility of “remittance, amnesty, lenience or grace”.

The Parliament accepted many of our other proposals during the adoption of the revised Code, on issues such as child abduction, the keeping of concubines, sexual harassment and sexual violence committed by civil or military authorities. Article 514 of the revised Code now stipulates that “the father or any other person who has abducted or facilitated the abduction, removed or facilitated the removal of a child who is still nursing, without the consent of the child’s mother, will be punished with a prison sentence of 5 or 10 years”. Before the Penal Code was revised this act was not explicitly punishable by law. By the same logic we successfully proposed a revision to an article on the taking of concubines (Article 524).

Whereas in the old Penal Code, sexual harassment was defined as simply “threats”, in view of our proposed amendments it now includes “the fact of using orders, threats (or) physical or psychological constraint, or violence against another person with the aim of obtaining favours of a sexual nature, through the abuse of the authority conferred by one’s role” (Article 558). We also successfully lobbied for the words “pertaining to sexual violence” to be added to this line in the same article: “the rank or fact of leading a legitimate civil or military authority in no way exonerates the author of an infraction pertaining to sexual violence from responsibility”. We wanted to make it perfectly clear that sexual violence is completely inexcusable.

We were able to achieve these radical and profound changes in the Penal Code thanks to our effective lobbying of the twenty parliamentarians who were part of our women’s group. We then invited them to do their bit by lobbying colleagues who weren’t part of the group. In this way, each person could influence another friend in a kind of chain. It was this advantage that enabled us to achieve such a great victory. It was also thanks to the financial support of certain donors, such as TrustAfrica and Trocaire.

Once the revised Burundian Penal Code was validated on the 22nd of April 2009, our women’s organisations breathed a sigh of relief. Yet the battle was not won. We found that many of those victim to the different forms of violence were illiterate. It was in this context that we first developed the idea of a functional literacy programme. We spent a year working on this at a national level and have now distributed the revised Penal Code in the national language, Kirundi.

So what positive changes have been brought about by the revised Penal Code? During our interventions on the ground, we found that nearly all of those affected were living in total ignorance of the law that protected them, so we began with awareness-raising work at the local administrative level, such as with community advisors. We made sure that we also talked to local people about the law’s treatment of gender based violence so that they knew both what was forbidden by the law, and how they could wield it to denounce an alleged perpetrator. When we asked for permission to go into one of the southern provinces, the local chief refused it. We insisted and then found out that he too had no idea of the content of the revised Code. Now people are aware of the Code they are using its articles to denounce all sorts of acts of gender based violence. However there are still some regions where the question of violence remains taboo. In the course of our work we found one woman well over sixty who had been traumatised by her husband over the course of more than twenty years. She had kept all of the different violence that she had endured locked up in her heart, and become mad. Now she is in our care and the improvement of her health is encouraging.


Some personal stories 

Two stories that come from our awareness raising work on the ground illustrate how the revision of the Penal Code can change people's lives profoundly, and this is true for both men and women.

Women with black eye

Francine, who is 26 years old, is a victim of assault and battery. She told us that she simply did not know that being beaten by your husband was punishable by law. Here is her story: “my husband started maltreating me after we had been married for just three months. My mother had told me that getting married meant accepting everything that comes with it. It was that terrible advice from my mother that kept me silent. I didn’t know that the law protected me. It was after I came into contact with awareness raising initiatives around the revised Penal Code that I learned that the law prohibited the act of violence that I had been undergoing for over ten years. The one thing that I will never forget is when my husband was also made aware. He came to understand that beating a woman is a slight on sustainable development, because women are a pillar of peace and development. Now I am no longer beaten, and we tell our story as an example to others. I cannot finish without thanking the Women’s Centre for Peace which has helped us to reconstruct our home.”


Jacqueline, who is 22 years old, was burned all over her body by her husband because she gave birth to a girl. When we raise awareness we make sure that we also include the perpetrators, because there are those that do it in total ignorance of the law. This is why some men have stopped committing these heinous acts and become activists for peace.


Here is Jacqueline’s husband, telling his story: “I didn’t know that when I beat my wife, I was beating myself!” said Jacqueline’s husband, testifying. “I lost so much through traumatising my wife. Others have been able to develop themselves, but not me. This is all because my wife, who could have been involved in farming activities, was unable to do so because of the cuts and wounds that I inflicted on her each day! It is thanks to the awareness-raising work of certain associations that I have understood that I could spend the rest of my life in prison. Now I have stopped maltreating my wife and she has forgiven me. Now we live in harmony and help each other in revenue generating activities”.

Violence against women is a negation of a person’s fundamental right to dignity, physical integrity and life. Moreover, if a person’s individual dignity is not respected it is society as a whole that falls into ruin. Faced with this tragic reality, each person should do more in the campaign to fight against sexual violence and gender based violence. We need to find the technical and financial means to overcome the obstacles before us. These include the trivialisation of these crimes, especially by the police and law enforcers; ignorance surrounding the identity of perpetrators, especially when it is a case of uniformed men, members of armed groups or organised gangs; the high costs of police services, access to lawyers and medical certificates; generalised corruption made worse by long delays in the legal process; a failure to effectively monitor and control the judiciary; and women’s economic dependence and poor access to legal representation. This final issue is something that effectively prevents women from taking legal action without the support of their husbands.

The Nkurunziza regime has brought some positive change for women, primary the revision of the Penal Code so that it is clear on the issue of gender-based violence. We now hope to see the adoption of a specific law on the issue of gender based violence. If financial means permit, we hope to develop a new strategy to lobby parliamentarians, using the same model that we employed for the revision of the Penal Code. The aim is to help them to understand the real need for this law. Once again, the battle is not yet won.


Translated from French by Jennifer Allsopp

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