Josepha Habonimana is 35 years old, with seven children and HIV. And that in Burundi supposes what it supposes: marginalization, rejection, abandonment, misery. But Josepha does not fit the smile on his face. Yes, he has HIV, many children without a father, but also youth, something with which to earn money and, by the way, three goats. This is his story, face and cross of this small and beautiful country of the Great Lakes: when his neighbors in the town of Mutumba found out that he had HIV, they effectively turned him aside. The virus is a kind of biblical curse if there is no education involved. The piece of land he cultivated was not enough to feed his children and he fell into despair. Sister Philoteé Nduwamungu, who works at a nearby health center, passed by her small hut in the mountains surrounding the capital Bujumbura. He proposed that he learn a new trade, soap making, and Josepha accepted. He started earning some money and there the three goats arrived. The circle closes: “Now my neighbors see HIV as just another disease,” says the young woman from Burundi without hiding an iota of pride.
The circle is easy to count, but difficult to trace. The usual stigmatization that accompanies HIV is undoubtedly greater in a country like Burundi, in the developing queue (ranked 184 out of 188, according to the Human Development Index), with a population settled in the countryside, 90% dependent on a subsistence agriculture, landlocked, handcuffed in exports, and deficient in education, despite its gratuitousness. With those wicker and being a woman, the first thing that someone like Joshepa can find is a door slam. “When I asked for water or food,” he recounted next to a small castle of soaps, “when I said good morning or approached them, they didn’t even answer me.” They had to see that what was rumored about Josepha was normal. And they saw it thanks in large part to the project that Sister Philoteé presented to him one day, supported by Unicef, the UN agency for children. The young woman earns a month with her small business around 45,000 Burundian francs, about 26 euros (8 out of 10 Burundians survive on less than 1.20 euros a day). The ones who buy are the neighbors.
Stigma easily crosses the path of women in Burundi, a country not without contrasts. The 2005 Constitution requires that Parliament and the Government have at least 30% women, an unusual fee, although familiar in the region – neighboring Rwanda has more women parliamentarians than men. There is a tendency to political parity. Burundians, in addition, lead through local solidarity groups great reconciliation initiatives in the country, which the day before yesterday experienced a bloody civil war (1993-2005). They are also the ones who carry much of this essential agriculture on their backs.
But not for all that, the male Burundi raises his foot. The latest violent crisis serves as a dramatic example: the announcement, in April 2015, of President Pierre Nkurunziza to apply for a third term raised sectors of the opposition, which took to the streets. About 700 people died in clashes; more than 300,000 (3% of the population) largely left the country, children and women. Soon, UN rapporteurs denounced something that they found very worrying: group rapes of women, often attending to their ethnic group – 85% of the population is Hutu, compared to 14% Tutsi. Again the ethnic group as a small curse used at the whim of armed groups.
Violence against adolescent girls and sexual exploitation are two of the burdens that children carry in Burundi. A program in Bujumbura, in the country’s capital, teaches young women, many of them repudiated mothers, to cook through theory and practice. The objective: to bring them closer to the labor market to break their stigma. ANA MUÑOZ (UNICEF)
Ethnicity aside, rape is common and the culprits are not always adults. Asked the heads of a juvenile reeducation center (15-17 years old), in the province of Rumonge, what are the most common crimes of children, rape is among them.
And if the respondents are humanitarian organization workers on the ground, their analysis of the burden on women does not stop there. The problems: rape and sexual exploitation. In Bujumbura, in line with the shore of the majestic Lake Tanganyika, in two classrooms without an exterior wall, Evelyne Shurweryimana kitchen. She is 17 years old, an orphan and already has two children. He speaks eager to speak, with his eyebrows outlined and a veil covering his hair. She was a sex worker; He says it outright despite the fact that it is not very popular there. “Before, I didn’t know how to do anything,” says Evelyne. Now she learns to cook, with the support of Unicef and the SOJPAE-Burundi organization. She herself lists: “I know how to make the provenzana sauce, the vinaigrette with mayonnaise, with mustard …”. The past, the past remains. And now? “My lifestyle has changed,” says Evelyne, “I would be able to partner to work in a restaurant.” That’s the idea.
Sexual exploitation worsens as does the depth of the economic crisis -major if possible- left after the violent shocks of 2015. And on many occasions it is preceded by abandonment or violence. The equation could be: rape, pregnancy, abandonment and exploitation. A pregnant woman outside of marriage is frowned upon and exclusion begins in the family itself. His is to have the more children the better (the average is six per woman, according to UN figures) and within marriage. The other side of the coin is called mortality: 7,000 women die each year in childbirth or from pregnancy-related problems.
Stessy Nsengimama is 19 years old with three little ones, one of them a newborn. His business, with which he has left prostitution behind, goes to pigs. Along with 35 other women, she is part of a pig exploitation cooperative, also supported by SOJPAE. Although there are around a couple of waiters, it is by and for them. “I lived off prostitution,” says Stessy, “but with this project I no longer do it.” And he continues: “My life has changed because with this association that we have created we can feed ourselves.” A change, but still remains. Stessy picks up her youngest child. He fell down and his mouth is smashed. Not well. Why didn’t you buy the prescribed medications? Because without a birth certificate they would not be given. And why didn’t you go for the certificate? No one could have taken care of her other two children. Another circle, this evil one, of the little forgotten great Burundi.