Burundi has a long history of ethnic conflict. In 1993, a civil war started when the Tutsi army overthrew the newly elected Hutu-dominated government and executed the President and six ministers. As a reaction, Hutu armed groups retaliated against Tutsi civilians and killed many. In 1994, the newly elected Hutu president Cyprien Ntaryamira was killed together with the Rwandan president Juvénal Habyarimana when their plane was shot down. Burundi then also closely witnessed the civil war in Rwanda and the Rwandan genocide, where over 800.000 Tutsis were killed by Hutu rebels.
In 1996, former Tutsi president Buyoya returned to power by means of a coup. Negotiation talks began to create a transitional government, ensuring peace talks with Hutu rebels. The peace talks led to the Arusha Agreement that was signed in 2000 by almost all rebel groups and a new multi-ethnic government and army were established. From 2003 onwards, the African Union and later the United Nations deployed peacekeeping missions, which lasted until 2006, ending 13 years of war which has killed nearly 300.000 people, the majority of them Tutsis, and displaced an estimated 1,2 million.
In 2015, Burundi experienced again longstanding violence, unrest, and massive human rights violations when President Pierre Nkurunziza announced he was running for a third time. Opponents and suspected opponents were killed, abducted, tortured, raped, and forced out of the country. Unexpectedly, President Pierre Nkurunziza stepped down earlier than said in 2020.
During the Burundi civil war, opportunistic and systemic sexual violence occurred, mainly targeting women and children, while a significant number of men have also been victims. Sexual violence was committed by the army, rebels, and civilians (from the victim’s community, and even domestic settings), with rebels and security sector agents being the primary. Women were forced into prostitution and children were recruited as child soldiers or for trafficking and sexual exploitation. Sexual violence happened particularly to women living in IDP camps but also occurred in other places.
Judicial proceedings to prosecute perpetrators of sexual violence are severely lacking in Burundi, and perpetrators go unpunished. Fear of stigma and threats prevents women from reporting and speaking out. Continuing the procedures is challenging because of the lack of resources, and procedures are often obstructed due to corruption. Despite the ending of the war, women were still targeted with sexual violence.
One of SEMA’s founding members, Esperande Bigirimana, is a survivor from Burundi. After becoming a victim of conflict-related sexual violence during the Burundian Civil War, she was forced to flee to South Africa. She then co-founded Phephisa Survivors Network, a movement which promotes safer environments for SGBV refugee survivors in South Africa. The network supports more than 267 survivors, from different countries in the region, including Burundi, DRC, Rwanda, Zimbabwe and South Africa, who reside in South Africa as refugees, permanent residents or citizens. Phephisa was awarded the ‘UK charity award’ in London in 2017. Next to her work at Phephisa, Esperande has supported the building of a survivor network in Burundi as a consultant for TearFund in 2019.
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