13 mins read

The Burundian peace process has represented a fortunate exception in terms of the inclusion of women and gender issues, but did it bring real improvements in their condition?

There is a long history regarding both women exclusion from agency and decision making in peace processes and the gender blindness of the peace agreements that result from them. Indeed, there have been very few cases of women playing a formal role either as third-party mediators or representatives of conflict parties, while they are often not mentioned at all in peace agreements.

This is due to a variety of factors that generally have to do with the way gender stereotypes shape societal roles in the great majority of contemporary patriarchal societies: in conflict settings specifically, if men are associated with strength and responsibility, women’s only role is a symbolic one – representing unity, honour – or of victims, the ones to be defended by enemies. All of this puts them in a dominated position and justifies their exclusion from political and military spheres and – since by consequence women are prevented from playing leadership roles during conflicts – from peace processes which tend to be male-dominated affairs.

Nonetheless, the conflict and post-conflict periods may also represent an opportunity for redefining these social relations and gender roles, allowing women to take steps towards emancipation. This is the case of the Burundian peace process: indeed, the negotiating process of the Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement (APRA) – signed in 2000 and formally ending a violent civil war lasting since 1993 – took into account women’s voices while the new Constitution included explicit provisions on gender issues. However, if on the one side new, more gender-equal spaces have emerged, on the other side old, patriarchal practices have been re-asserted as well.

The evolution of women’s condition during the conflict

Traditional Burundian society is patrilinear and patriarchal and women are a highly disadvantaged group to the point that they are unable to have any authority both in the private sphere and in the public one. Despite the central role that women play in the family’s production, only men – as the heads of the household – have the right to make all decisions, while women’s rights and freedom are not safeguarded – they are traditionally taught to submit their husband and even in cases of abuse or violence they do not dare denouncing them or eventually may not perceive it as a crime –; neither do they have economic power: indeed, in the Burundian culture, women are not allowed to have access to money or property which means that they are dependent on either their husband or male relatives to survive. As for the public sphere, even if there were no legal barriers to women’s participation in politics, prevailing social norms together with the fact that access to education was restricted to them meant that few women had political roles in the pre-war period – female political representation was less than 5 per cent – so that their role was relegated to the domestic sphere.

However, the outbreak of the civil war profoundly changed women’s conditions. If, on the one side, its impact on them was severe since, as their spouse tended to leave home to fight or died in combat, they were left without physical protection and without sources of income, on the other side they could perform new roles – both in the private sphere and in the public one – that the Burundian society had not ascribed to them previously. Indeed, at the domestic level, many women were empowered since they became heads of the household acquiring the authority to take decisions, while the urge to find means to survive meant that some female were able to find paid work during the conflict. At the political level, this changed perception of gender roles allowed women to claim more responsibilities, so that during the peacebuilding phase they could carve out spaces of decision-making power.

The role of women in the peace process

The signing of the APRA at Arusha in August 2000 marked the end of a process which began in 1996. While the approach was initially gender blind and only men were invited to the peace table when the negotiations began, it was not long before women – who began campaigning for peace as soon as the conflict erupted by creating local organizations to build inter-ethnic relationships between Hutu and Tutsi women at the grassroots level – started to make pressure for inclusion in the process. After an initial rejection, they turned to international bodies like the UN Development Fund For Women (UNIFEM) and the UN High Commission For Refugees and, with backing from these organizations, they managed to obtain the permanent observer status at the talks for seven women, being therefore able to follow the negotiations and to plan their lobbying strategies. In this sense, they organized an All-Party Burundi Women’s Peace Conference, held a month prior the signing of the Peace Agreement, to which 50 Burundian women took part with the task to represent all of Burundi’s women and to make recommendations on issues such as women’s constitutional rights and gender-based violence.

Many of them were then included in the Accord – such as the elimination of all laws discriminating against women, the introduction of a legal framework against gender-based violence to put an end to impunity and the guarantee of equal access to education for girls – while others were rejected. It is the case of the call for the recognition of the right to women to own land and property and the guaranteed 30% representation in the executive, legislative and judiciary branches of government and in all bodies created by the Peace Agreement, the latter accepted only subsequently and incorporated into the new post-transitional Constitution thanks to constant pressure and fervent advocacy on women’s political right carried out by local and national women’s organizations supported by UNIFEM.

In that sense the Constitution – approved through a referendum in 2005 – was absolutely cutting-edge: it not only assured a minimum of 30% female representation in the government, the National Assembly and the Senate, but also stipulated that at least one out of every four candidates in each party list running for elections should have been a woman. Burundian women were also allowed to attend public consultations on transitional justice and composed four out of eleven members of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, while – after persistent lobbying – they obtained training on sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) and domestic violence response to be integrated into police training and, in 2009, the introduction of a legal basis for prosecuting SGBV and domestic violence, including the criminalisation of marital rape, into the penal code.

Unaddressed questions 

Despite the successes achieved in representation in the peace process and in the production of a relatively gender aware Accord, many questions remained unaddressed both during the interim and the post-conflict periods.

The issue of inheritance and access to land and property is as long-standing and problematic as it is crucial and remains a key demand of Burundian women’s organizations: draft legislation recognizing women’s right to inheritance has continuously stalled because of justifications of the status quo on cultural and traditional grounds which state that only sons inherit from the father as daughters are intended for another family, that of the husband. This inequality carries severe consequences for women – mostly single women and widows – who, lacking economic independence, have no other way to get means to survive than to rely on the goodness of others. All of this is made even more critical if one thinks about the persisting inequalities between men and women at the economic level – with most of the female workforce confined to the agricultural and informal sectors – and in education. Indeed, if primary education is free for everyone since 2005, the dropout rate is higher among girls, while very few women get to enrol in the university.  

Even those generally recognized as important achievements present conflicting results in truth. Indeed, while acknowledging the symbolic importance of women’s presence in the legislative and executive branches of government, there is a sense that the 30% gender quota – largely respected since the 2005 elections – has not necessarily translated into effective women’s ability to participate in Burundian politics and in more gender sensitive policies. As a matter of fact, the majority of leaders of political parties are still almost exclusively men and they have proved to be resistant to letting women speak up and express their issues of concern. There is also a tendency to consider women as illegitimate politicians, who just have to fill the quota but do not have the ability and experience to make a real difference. Moreover, since the Constitution imposes the legally binding quota for the level of women’s representation only in the national government, they continued to be underrepresented at the local political level, mostly at the provincial and the Collin ones.

Furthermore, SGBV remains a major concern: if the legal framework against this kind of crimes has been strengthened and there is an increasing realization of their seriousness, the implementation of the provisions remains weak and older attitudes of considering the violence as a private issue and of blaming the victim or of pressuring them not to report abuses to the authorities continue to prevail as well.

All of this highlights that, despite many accomplishments, there is a need to truly address the persistent gender inequalities and discriminations in Burundi’s legal framework and, even more importantly, to deal with deeper cultural and structural gender hierarchies in order to dismantle patriarchal norms and unequal relations of power.

Latest from IARI WORLD