Burundi is one of the poorest countries in the world. It was devastated by many years of civil conflicts and wars following its independence from Belgium in 1962. The breakdown of economic, social, and cultural structures led to a deterioration of women’s condition. The worst example is Kamenge, a slum in the northern part of the capital city, Bujumbura. In 2002, women from the Evangelical Friends Church were touched by how the people of Kamenge face many interconnected challenges. They formed Friends Women Association (FWA), an organization that helps women rebuild their lives and care for each other. To achieve its mission, FWA constantly develops new partnerships, and seeks to learn new skills.
Inspiration to bring change
In June 2014, the Evangelical Friends Church of Burundi appointed me to go to Johannesburg, South Africa, for an intensive study of conflict transformation at the African Peacebuilding Institute. During my studies there, I realized that gender-based violence was one of the main challenges that was fueling conflicts in Burundi. Quaker Service Norway provided early support for FWA’s work to address gender-based violence (GBV).
In my role as coordinator of FWA, I next had the opportunity to be part of the reciprocal exchange between the Africa Peacebuilding Institute and the Mir Centre for Peace at Selkirk College in Castlegar, British Columbia (BC). I was supported by the Mir Centre to study Peace Studies from September to December 2015. Along with Peace Studies, I took a course called Women’s Studies that provided new knowledge to put into practice, as we can read in a note I wrote when I was back home.
“Women studies have helped me to understand more how women’s movements have started around the world. I have learned that women have struggled to bring change. Unfortunately, gender inequality and the patriarchal system still exist. We still have lots work to do to reduce gender-based violence.”
Inspired by the Women’s Studies course, the team at FWA in Burundi organized an event to raise awareness and call for action against GBV on December 9, 2016. Local authorities, GBV facilitators, and both women and men in the Kibimba community were mobilized.
Earlier this year, the Mir Centre for Peace supported me to study a new course, Unarmed Civilian Peacekeeping (UCP). The course was divided into two parts: online from January to March, then two weeks face-to-face in BC during April and May. I returned as pastor to my congregation and coordinator of FWA with skills that will help in a practical way in my double leadership roles.
UCP principles are nonviolence, nonpartisanship, independence, transparency, and the primacy of local people. Strategies are proactive presence, building relationships, capacity building, and monitoring. These will be relevant in Burundi, especially when it comes to elections. For instance, the primacy of the local people principle calls for the capacity building. The purpose is that local people keep peace after unarmed civilian peacekeepers have withdrawn. Also, building relationships with existing authorities is so important, so that communication and plans for peace can be coordinated.
Facing challenges by raising awareness
FWA still has many challenges. Firstly, on one side, as GBV is rooted in our Burundian culture, many women still find it normal. On the other side, men find our women’s economic empowerment a potential cause to disturb families. According to them, women will no longer submit to their husbands once they have their own income. Therefore, FWA needs funding for 40 trauma healing workshops and 20 follow ups, to raise awareness against GBV, and to do more capacity building of the 75 GBV companions.
FWA is also in a good position to educate and train people for nonviolence during the upcoming elections period. To do this, FWA needs additional funds to organize peace and democracy groups for three years starting with 2018. FWA will also need another special budget to bring some UCP people from Canada to work together during this electoral period. If you want to know more about FWA, please visit http://www.fwaburundi.com/
Parfaite Ntahuba is coordinator of Friends Women’s Association. Canadian Friends Service Committee has supported FWA for many years. In recent years a designated donation from Vancouver Island Monthly Meeting has helped FWA to deliver testing and provide various forms of support to people living with HIV/AIDS. CFSC also helped bring Parfaite to Western Half Yearly Meeting in Sorrento, BC, in 2017.