The Story of Burundi’s Friends Women’s Association
My name is Diana. I was told that my mother threw me away when I was two months old because she and my father were always fighting. I grew up feeling that I was rejected. I got married to a soldier who has been fighting in the forest. He has now a disability in one of his legs. He has been very abusive toward me. Most of the time, he locks me in our room and beats me with his belt. I have a lot of scars all over my skin. He says I have nowhere to go because even my mother threw me away. One day, he was caught in adultery with a sex worker. He paid 100,000 Burundi francs to be released. However, he never provides for me and our two kids. I have to wash some people’s clothes in order to survive. I’m now using birth control, as it is very hard to survive with my two kids. I’m very thankful for this workshop. Most people think that I live peacefully with my husband because I have not revealed to them the way I’m surviving. This is my first time sharing this story in a group of people.
In 2002, the women from the Evangelical Friends Church were touched by the many interconnected challenges faced by the people of Kamenge, a neighborhood in the Bujumbura Mairie Province of Burundi. These difficulties include high rates of HIV/AIDS, food insecurity, and widow- and female-headed households. There is also sexual and gender-based violence, little access to public services and employment, and psychosocial trauma resulting from war. This is how the Friends Women’s Association (FWA) started. It is a women-led organization that helps women to rebuild their lives and to care for each other.
I am the national coordinator of Friends Women’s Association. I grew up in a Catholic family. In 1993, a civil war began here in Burundi, in Central Africa, and lasted for more than ten years. Many people died, including my father, and we were forced to run from our home. We were internally displaced people (IDPs). We were hosted by a Quaker family. I experienced love and peace in that Quaker family. And in 1994, I joined the Quaker family.
There had been much violence in my family. My mother was often abused by my father. She was a homestay mother who worked very hard in the fields to provide food for the family, but she did not bring any money home. I was traumatized by my childhood. I hated violence. I thought my mother was abused because she had not received education, which would have allowed her to get a job. This is the reason why I did my best to get a master’s degree in theological studies. Today, I’m one of only three women pastors from the Evangelical Friends Church of Burundi. One of the main reasons I was ordained as pastor was to break the gender barrier.
How did I join the Friends Women’s Association? We had been working with Ntamamiro Cassilde (Cassie), the founder of FWA. She was also the clerk of Rohero Evangelical Friends Church, and I was her assistant clerk. She often talked about FWA, and I was interested in a women-led organization. When Cassie left in 2006, Dr. Alexia Nibona succeeded her. In 2014, I became the FWA national coordinator. FWA is involved in healthcare and in peacebuilding.
FWA and Healthcare
FWA’s point of entry is health. We have two programs related to health: caring for HIV Positive People (CHIVPP) and Improving Women’s Reproductive Health (IWRH).
When FWA started in 2002, the target group was people infected with HIV/AIDS, especially women. It took 11 years (until September 2013) to be accredited by the Ministry of Health to dispense antiretroviral (ARV) treatment (ART). One of the main challenges to scaling up HIV services was that FWA didn’t have its own Complete Blood Count (CBC) machine, which establishes whether the body can handle the side effects from the ARV drugs.
At the end of December 2014, FWA had eight patients under ARV medication. Since July 2015, we have had great support from Vancouver Island (B.C.) Meeting, and today 302 HIV+ people are monitored at Ntaseka Clinic.
“I came here at Ntaseka Clinic weighing 35kg. Now I am 45kg. I was about to die, but God has used FWA to bring back my life,” said a patient named Orga after six months of ARV treatment.
We have recently extended our clinic to unveil a maternity ward to prevent the transmission from mother to child. Vancouver Island (B.C.) Meeting has provided 90 percent of the support. (We would like to call other Friends around the world to support this project. We need at least $20,000 per year to complete this project by 2020. As of this writing, we have only raised $2,500 this year.)
Burundi is a small country of 10,747 square miles and only 10.8 million people. One person subsists on less than $1.25 per day, according to the World Bank. Women suffer because of the lack of information on sexual and reproductive health. On average, each woman has six children, and around 1,071 babies are born each day. There is lots of conflict over land and even the spread of HIV/AIDS due to polygamy. This is the reason why FWA is now organizing outreach sessions to educate both men and women on the importance of birth control. In 2018, a total of 3,822 women received modern contraceptive methods at FWA’s Ntaseka Clinic, averaging 318 women per month. This should be celebrated, especially as we are working in a country in which the majority Roman Catholics are taught that birth control is a sin.
Gender-based Violence, an Alarming Challenge
Many factors in Burundi contribute to the prevalence of gender-based violence (GBV). Women and girls in Burundi are widely viewed as inferior and often subjected to violence. In 2011, a study from the International Medical Corps named a number of factors which increase the vulnerability of young women and children to GBV: stress surrounding widespread poverty; limited access to job opportunities and land for cultivation; misconceptions regarding AIDS; and wrong beliefs such as one that claims having sex with a virgin can cure the disease. FWA realized that some women got HIV/AIDS through sexual violence through beneficiaries. By introducing a program called Rape Survivors Support (RSS), FWA worked to reintegrate rape survivors both psychologically and economically. GBV is rooted in our Burundian culture. For example, women are taught to keep quiet even if they suffer in their homes. That is why FWA is helping vulnerable women by creating a safe space where they can share their sad stories through trauma-healing workshops. FWA has extended this program to prevent GBV by educating religious and community-elected leaders to stand against GBV. We have been working in Gitega Province for five years and now in Bujumbura.
I have long suffered violence in my home. My husband was doing all kinds of violence that you could imagine. He had four women, even a 12-year-old child. He didn’t respect her. He raped me sexually. I worked alone in the fields, and he robbed all the harvest. When I bought a goat to help me, he sold it . . . etc.
I had no one to help me in this situation. I tried to flee to my parents, and they told me that this is how a home is founded. The consequences of this violence weighed heavily on my life. His wives mistreated me, and some of their children have become street children who come now to rob us.
The change took place after the training organized by FWA. I did not believe it at first when I saw him helping me with some household activities. I was very surprised. Now I can testify that everything has changed; we work together, he buys me clothes, we were able to build a house, we were able to buy a motorcycle . . . etc.
And what makes me very happy is that he can transport me on this motorcycle. He even supported me to come here today and testify.
Women’s Economic Empowerment, a Great Tool to Face Gender-based Violence
Women represent more than half of the total population of Burundi. Women are regarded as vital stakeholders in all sectors of national life. As mothers and main educators, women play an important part in the future of Burundi. Yet the level of political and economic participation of women remains very low. Their limited representation is partly related to imbalances in the education system.
FWA has been serving in Kamenge since 2002. During these recent past years, we have learned that women need economic empowerment to face GBV. The majority of women are rural and do not have economic assets. The rural woman is poor, as is her urban counterpart, and most have only limited access to credit, which is very expensive. The majority of women lack collateral to obtain loans from banks and other financial institutions.
Since January 2017, FWA has encouraged women to organize themselves into self-help groups. At the end of June 2019, we had a total of 47 self-help groups totaling 1,105 women. If we consider an average of five kids per woman, we are now touching 5,525 children’s lives. A lot of women’s groups have supported FWA, such as Kamenge Women’s Center. Each one of the 47 groups that make up FWA needs to meet at least once a week.
FWA has recently initiated a new program, called Street Business School, to teach women how they can start a small business with very little money. At the end of May, 40 women graduated at FWA as the first graduates of Street Business School.
My name is Jacqueline. I live with HIV/AIDS. Before I came to FWA, I did not have the courage to work because I thought that I was disabled. I did not have the hope to live. I thought people should help me. I suffered for a long time from poverty. I was asking for shelter because I could not pay the rent.
My life was changed when I joined the credit and savings group. Thanks to the different topics covered each day before saving, I realized that I am able to change my way of life. I then felt capable of doing a great deal and changed my behavior by putting what I learned into practice. I asked for a credit to start a small business and I was able to repay. Little by little I built a small house in my own plot of land. Thanks to the credits that I asked in my savings group! In addition to that, I keep on doing my own business that helps me cover my daily needs.
My name is Marie. After the death of both my parents in 1993, I found myself in an IDP camp. In this camp, I was sexually abused by a soldier until I had two children: the first is 14 and the second is 16. When we separated with the said soldier, I became a sex worker, first in the countryside and then here in Bujumbura. I got HIV/AIDS when I was a sex worker. The reason why I came for HIV voluntary testing was that I lost weight every day. I always had headaches, a temperature, and oral thrush. When I started ARV treatment, my health began to improve. For now, I greatly appreciate the discussion groups because it is an opportunity to meet those who have the same serological status as me. I have been a member of a self-help group for one year. For many years, I had received training in a sewing center, but I had never managed to have capital to have my own machine. Now I was able to receive a credit of 150,000 FBu ($86) from my self-help group. I was able to buy a sewing machine. At the moment, my children can eat three times a day and can go to school easily.
Friends Women’s Association could not have done all of this work without foreign support. Our heartfelt thanks are primarily addressed to the African Great Lakes Initiative of Friends Peace Teams, which has supported us since 2002. We also recognize the significant support from Quaker Service Norway since 2008. We strongly appreciate the great support of Canadian Quakers who have supported us since 2015 through Canadian Friends Service Committee. Quakers around the world have been supporting FWA. Many thanks to all of them! Our thanks are also addressed to local non-governmental organizations such as the Burundian Alliance Against HIV/AIDS, Family Health International, and American Friends Service Committee–Burundi. Segal Family Foundation has also been also our great partner since 2017.