The sunrise of hope for women in the poorest slum in Bujumbura

Burundi is an African landlocked independent state which borders Rwanda, Tanzania, and Congo, thus forming part of the Central African region. The capital city is Bujumbura. In history Burundi has been devastated by many years of civil conflict and wars following its independence in 1962. Burundi is one of the poorest countries in the world. The number of people below the poverty line almost doubled from 35 percent in 1993 to 67 percent in 2006. According to the World Bank four-fifths of the population still subsists on less than US $1.25 per day. The breakdown of economic, social, and cultural structures from the last, intensive 12-year civil conflict in Burundi led to a deterioration of women’s condition. The worst example is Kamenge, a slum in the northern part of Bujumbura, the capital city, whose consequences are still visible today. In 2002, women from the Evangelical Friends Church were touched by how the people of Kamenge faced many interconnected challenges. Among these are high rates of HIV/AIDS, food insecurity, and widow/female headed households. There is also little access to public services and employment, sexual and gender-based violence, and psychosocial trauma caused by war. This was the beginning of the Friends Women Association (FWA), an organization that helps women to rebuild their lives and to care for each other. Addressing the unique needs of women in the conflict and post-conflict environment It takes courage and compassion to understand how one can serve and address challenges in a community. But it takes even more determination and persistency to understand how to respond to the very unique needs of women beset by poverty, HIV/AIDS, sexual violence, and post-conflict trauma. As a women-led organization, FWA mission is to provide comprehensive community-based health care, to promote women’s leadership and autonomy, and to strengthen peace and solidarity in Kamenge and other communities in Burundi. FWA and Caring for HIV Positive People When FWA started in 2002, the target group was people, especially women, infected with HIV/AIDS. The journey was long because it took eleven years to 6 September 2013 that FWA was accredited by the Ministry of Health to dispense anti-retroviral treatment (ARV) to HIV+ people. One of the main challenges to scaling up its HIV services was that FWA did not have its own Complete Blood Count (CBC) machine, which establishes whether the body can handle the side effects from the ARV drugs. With help from donors, the NTASEKA Clinic has been able to purchase its own CBC machine. At the end of December 2014, FWA had eight patients under ARV medication. Now, with the great support since July 2015 from Vancouver Island Monthly Meeting, 185 people are receiving treatment at NTASEKA Clinic. Orga the first one to be under ARVs treatment at NTASEKA clinic with her small kid. I came here at NTASEKA clinic weighing 35kg (77 pounds). Now I weight 45kg (99 pounds). I was about to die, but God has used FWA to bring back my life. Said Orga after six months under ARV treatment.  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 its 2011 study the International Medical Corps found that stress surrounding widespread poverty, limited access to job opportunities and land for cultivation, as well as misconceptions regarding AIDS – and some wrong beliefs like having sex with a virgin can cure the disease – are increasing the vulnerability of young women and children to GBV. Through reports from beneficiaries, FWA realized that some women contracted HIV/AIDS through sexual violence. GBV is rooted in our Burundian culture. For example, women are educated in such a way they have to keep quiet even though they might suffer in their homes. By introducing a program called Rape Survivors Support (RSS), FWA works to reintegrate rape survivors both psychologically and economically. FWA is helping vulnerable women by creating a safe space where they can share their sad stories through trauma healing workshops. I was a very brave girl who had money because I worked hard. I was selling charcoal. One man told me he wanted to marry me and I accepted. Before we got married, he raped me as I was visiting him. Then he sent me back home and I refused. I felt humiliated; I hated myself; I was ashamed. In his house, he continued to mistreat me, giving me hurtful and humiliating words. He took all my money and he stopped me from doing my small business. He wanted to kill me many times. (The woman removed her cloth to show us scars from the knife her husband had jabbed in her thighs). I stayed with my husband because I was afraid to leave my children with this monster. One night he wanted to kill me. This is when I decided to leave home. Now I’ve become a woman I never wanted to be – my refuge is alcohol and prostitution. Everybody judges me by saying, “What kind of a mother is she who abandons her children”. But they don’t know the hell I was living and I cannot speak to justify myself.  FWA is also empowering them economically by organizing them into self-help groups so that they can do small businesses and earn some income. FWA is also involved in GBV prevention by mobilizing communities, starting with churches, to participate in Action on Gender-Based Violence (AGBV). FWA has decided to build the capacity of church leaders and has identified the Evangelical Friends Church of Burundi as a key partner in our struggle against GBV since they have a long history of peacemaking. To accomplish this FWA has trained 75 GBV companions including 28 men and 47 women. These include both church leaders and community elected leaders.  One GBV companion reported on one case: A woman saw her husband having sex with another woman. To show his masculinity her husband beat his wife and wounded her. Before interviewing her I gave my own money for medical care. After that I started organizing education sessions with this man on GBV. I remember that I asked him one day, “If it was you who saw your wife sleeping with another man, what would be your reaction?” He himself told me that he would throw her out of his house. I explained the consequences that his wife could have because of this violence. Previously he said that he can never ask his wife for forgiveness because it’s like a humiliation. After several sessions the man agreed to ask his wife for forgiveness.  After I did these sessions, by God’s grace, I managed to help them. Now the woman testifies that her husband has changed. Two key Lessons we learnt by working with women in the community Through implementing its programs and trying to address these issues, FWA has learned valuable lessons that can help other change makers who serve women in the community.
  • Avoid a top down approach but emphasize community participation
Community involvement is our main strategy for our programs’ sustainability. Rather than trying to impose changes, FWA works with local people in the community, many of whom are illiterate women, to educate them about basic health care and trauma healing.
  • Trainings can revolutionize the thinking in the community
FWA trainings emphasize principles of recovery, equity, integration, and empowerment. People need first to recover from their trauma before being empowered. Regardless of life conditions equity gives every person access to health information and services. Integration blends preventive and curative care as well as social and economic aspects of development so that all work together. Empowerment is about capacity building for local people to find solutions to their own problems. Challenges and a call to action FWA still has many challenges. First, on one side, as GBV is rooted in our Burundian culture, many women still find GBV to be normal. On the other side, men find our women’s economic empowerment as a potential cause to disturb families. According to them, women will no longer submit to their husbands once they have their own income. To respond to this FWA needs at least US$20,000 per year for trauma healing workshops, to raise awareness against GBV, and capacity building for the 75 GBV companions. NTASEKA Clinic still needs more rooms to extend its services especially for hospitalization and a maternity ward. We already have a plan for a one-level building which will cost US$50,000. Very soon we will need a fulltime medical doctor for our HIV positive beneficiaries. This will cost at least US$350 per month.  Not so far from now, we will need a safe place as a women’s shelter in cases of domestic violence. This will require an additional building. If you want to know more about FWA, please visit ____________________________________________________

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