Violence targets the weakest

We have found that the primary cause of all the violence and submission which women undergo is discrimination, and it is this which makes us more vulnerable than the others. Lucie Minzigama spoke to Isabel Hilton at the Nobel Women's initiative gathering in Guatemala about her work in Burundi working for women and children's human rights

Isabel Hilton
29 June 2009

L: I am the Coordinator at the Observatoire des Droits de l’Enfant de Burundi (The Observatory of Children’s Rights of Burundi), but first and foremost I am a female defender of the rights of women and children. I work also a volunteer for the Association des Femmes Juristes (The Associating of Female Lawyers) as this is where we really work on the women’s problems.

I: And could you give me an introduction to the situation in Burundi, to the problems you face in your work there?

L: The big problem in our country is practically the same as in the DRC, that there was an armed conflict and that it lasted a very long time. But this armed conflict hit our country in a situation where the women were already weak, which means that if all the belligerents and all the combatants attack women, who are already being discriminated against, then they take advantage of this situation and attack women precisely because of that.

The big problem we have is therefore linked to the crisis. We face extreme poverty and women are most touched by this. There are also the other effects of war besides extreme poverty. There is certainly a lot of violence directed at women, and all these types of violence, sexual violence, conjugal violence etc, have amplified. Conjugal violence and domestic violence existed even before the crisis, but with the crisis our whole society here in Burundi has faced a total upheaval. The violence has amplified, whether physical violence, verbal violence, or all sorts of other violence. We mustn’t forget economic violence either, because a poor woman, a woman in extreme poverty, has trouble raising her head and fighting off violence. When she is hit, when she is beaten, she cannot go and press charges as where would she go? She will no longer find a refuge, so where will she go? Even her own family won’t support her, as often the families say that this is just the way it is in our society. And so all these forms of violence which are directed towards women make women weaker, even women in institutions today are hit by this violence and weakened by it.

The other problem is the problem of democracy in general because a country which is just coming out of a crisis has a big problem with democracy. Today the powers that be have come straight from underground forces without experience and carrying the weight of all the problems linked to the crisis. All this makes people vulnerable, and this is something which touches women more than men since in addition to the problems facing men, women find themselves at the lowest rung of the social ladder. This makes them the first victims of all these problems.

I: Given all these complex and multidimensional problems, how do you fight against violence against women, against a culture which seems to even encourage the victimisation of women? In your work in particular.

L: Our work at the Association de Femmes Juristes was established with three main areas in mind. The first was women’s education, trying to give women a minimum core knowledge base so that they can reclaim their rights, because due to ignorance, women thought it normal that they were in this situation. So education is one of the ways in which we can get women out of this situation.

Another area is providing women with assistance. At the Association de Femmes Juristes there is a Lawyers Clinic which welcomes women who are experiencing problems. It tries to help them through mediation where possible, but it also accompanies them during administrational and legal procedures and sometimes, where possible, gives juridical assistance to try and comfort them, especially those who are victims of violence, to try to give them the strength to claim compensation and whatever else they are entitled to.

The third area we work on is defence work. With its defence work, the Association de Femmes Juristes has given itself the role of trying to see which which national laws are discriminatory towards women, because we have found that the primary cause of all the violence and submission which women undergo is discrimination, and it is this which makes us more vulnerable than the others. And so we wanted to work on this subject, on discrimination, and we have tried to review all the national legislation to see which clauses are still discriminatory towards women.

And we have initiated some revisions of the law and also drafted some special laws, such as the law on inheritance rights. This constitutes a big gap in our national legislation as women don’t currently have inheritance rights. We are always ruled by our tradition because the custom still severely discriminates against women.

We initiated a law which we tried to get passed at government level, which didn’t work. We also tried to pass it before the National Assembly so that the law could become a parliamentary initiative.

The first time, I think it was in 2003, a part of parliament accepted the new law. It was put to the vote at the level of the National Assembly, but once again, when the proposition was sent to the government the government blocked it and up until now we are still trying to appeal for this law. You see this is something of extreme importance as far as discrimination against women is concerned since, beside the fact that having no property rights is something which is very serious for women, having this law would allow all women to understand that they are full citizens, because even if we don’t need it, the fact that there is a part of the population which has the right to inheritance and another, constituted by women, which cannot inherit, means that at the end of the day women are second rate citizens. That’s why we want to get this law passed.

In terms of advocacy work we are also still working on lots of other projects, on seminars, meditative workshops, and lots of initiatives on a national level to try and attract the attention of the powers that be and promulgate this law. We’ve also been working on an international level. We’ve tried to win the support of international organisations. We’ve also worked with the United Nations. We’ve done alternative reports on aids and on the Convention Against Torture, and in these alternative reports we absolutely always put in this law on inheritance rights as whatever the subject may be, be it torture, violence or aids, this law is seriously wanting and its absence constitutes a violation of the conventions ratified by our country.

We did an alternative report on the ‘Examen Periodique Universel’ (The Periodic Universal Exam) too, and once again we came back to the inheritance law each time, along with other things, such as violence. There is also a large section on violence against women in that report too.

Recommendations have been made by the committee of Les Femmes Juristes, and also by the council at the level of the ‘Examen Periodique Universel’, and the state has acknowledged and accepted lots of our recommendations. Recommendations proposed by us have been implemented by the state, at the level of the council and the committee. The state accepted, but the putting into practice of these recommendations is always problematic, even if we don’t admit it! But we’re going to keep going, we’re going to keep working on it.

We have also worked on the Penal Code in connection with violence against women. A new law has just been passed regarding a revision of the Penal Code and on this level we can really see that the government has responded to us as there are lots of clauses which have been put into the Penal Code to readdress the question of violence against women. But the problem is that as far as putting these revisions into practice and repression are concerned we still have a long way to go.

We are also working on the revision of the Code of Penal Procedure. We hope that will work.

At the moment we are also running an anti-violence campaign through which we are trying to get all these ideas across. The government needs to realise that not only should it not endorse violent against women, but that as long as it does nothing to protect against it, it is responsible for this violence. The motor of the campaign is thus to direct the government’s conscience towards its own responsibility, because its primary responsibility is to project women against violence. And with all the activities we’re doing with other committees, with the UN for example, we’re focusing on trying to get this message out there.

I: Do you see some progress in this area?

L: It’s difficult to talk of progress in our country, what with all the problems we face right now, but anyway, we can’t say that all we’ve done has been in vain as there is above all the fact that we have just seen the revision of the Penal Code. Even if it didn’t take all of our proposals into account, a fair few of our concerns were considered and have been included in this law.

There are other things which we can be proud of too, such as the fact that the Association de Femmes Juristes, along with other women’s organisations and even civil society at large, has been active in negotiations with the government. We worked hard to make sure that women could be part of these negotiations. It didn’t work, but even if it didn’t work, at least women won the right to act as observers during these negotiations. They were also able to submit notes regarding the themes discussed. It was during these negotiations that we accepted the quota of thirty percent for all institutions. Today this has been put in the national constitution and we consider this is a big thing for us. Even if our ultimate goal is equality, at least we now have a representation of thirty percent in the country’s institutions.

Another thing we can be proud of is the fact that civil society is beginning to form coalitions to make collective demands. When we do alternative reports, when we do advocacy work on women’s questions, generally the other members of civil society help us, and not just women’s groups either, everyone is involved.  When we do petitions, statements or memorandums, civil society gets involved in everything we do. We consider this is a significant step for us as now the majority of groups working to defend human rights support women’s rights. For us this is something extremely significant. The battle hasn’t been won yet, but it’s a start.

I wanted to add that where I work now, at the Observatoire des Droits d’Enfant, I see the work we do as a compliment to our work regarding women’s rights. We ask ourselves the reason for all the violence around us, we ask ourselves why women are raped... In fact, women are not raped because they are women, but because right now women are vulnerable, and people always attack the vulnerable.

I: You mean they do it because they can?

L: Yes, they do it because they can. For the most part they attack women and children. And the people who commit this violence are often frustrated people who have themselves been the victims of violence. We have to realise that our upbringing is based, for a large part, on violence. We find it normal that children have corporal punishments, we find that totally normal. And even when we are doing advocacy work on why these corporal punishments must be banned we’re faced with the response, and what are we meant to do with our kids if we don’t hit them? And so this is why we are working on violence against children, in the hope that it will give children dignity, allow them to realise themselves and help them to become responsible adults.

You see those who are frustrated and those who have suffered lots of cruelty do not become responsible adults. These people repeat such cruelty and attack others, partly to avenge themselves in some way, and also because they have been conditioned to commit violence. So this is big question for our Observatory. We want to do all we can to drive the government towards the eradication of violence against children in the hope that this will give children dignity and allow them to become responsible adults who respect everyone. In this context women will become full citizens because all the children will grow up respecting human dignity and equality for everyone.

I: And for you, what does it mean to participate in this meeting, in this conference?

L: For me, participating in this conference, a conference which is above all a conference of female Nobel Laureates, is extremely important. For a start, I must admit that I didn’t know that there were so many female Nobel Laureates and this is very significant. I think it’s important for me to take this message back to my country to show that if women work hard they can succeed and get results. They need to know that there are other women out there who have done extraordinary things and that we can be like them. These are examples we should follow. I think the conference is important for that alone, just to give us all examples of women who have done extraordinary things, women who give us the courage to do the same thing, despite the problems which we face.

It’s also very great to meet other women who can talk to us about their personal experiences; we will really be able to use what we have learned here. And it’s also an extraordinary opportunity for exchange, to meet all these women from all over the world. I think we will be able to form a network, we spoke about it in the hall, so that we can help each other mutually in our combat. Because when it’s a few women fighting in a single country it doesn’t go very far, but when the fight involves all the women of the world, a large number of women from all sorts of different backgrounds, it becomes massive. For me it’s truly amazing.

Translated into English by Jenny Allsopp



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