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Society | Gender - Women | Human rights

Burundi's women still live in fear of violence

afrol News, 22 March - Hundreds of Burundian women interviewed agreed that, despite the mild security improvements due the 2003 ceasefire, the climate of violence has actually increased. With illicit arms increasingly accessible, violence has turned from war-related incidences to revenge acts, sexual predation and armed robbery, mostly victimising women, a new report shows.

A report by Edward Rackley, commissioned by the UN's development programme (UNDP), demonstrates that violence against women in Burundi has not decreased due to the almost general end in fighting. It has mostly changed in character, Mr Rackly and his team of consultants established, after interviewing hundreds of women. The report reveals that the same arms used in the civil war are now directed towards women to perpetuate violent crimes and to silence them.

Rural and urban women interviewed by the team spoke unanimously of living in a state of "generalised fear". This, the report highlights, mostly was due to the fact that "automatic weapons, homemade rifles, pistols and hand grenades are regularly sold, rented or loaned for use in armed robbery and road ambushes."

Rural women had frequently asserted that weapons used in armed violence - particularly rape and robbery - "originated in rental or sale by government soldiers, former rebels and civil defence units." Through rental and sale, gun ownership was becoming highly lucrative.

Women had decried the state of siege and fear created by arms proliferation. Some acknowledged that guns serve to protect the household, but added, "We know their ultimate purpose is destruction." Another conceded, "We are afraid of guns but don't dare denounce them," according to the report.

Burundian women repeatedly had told the consultant team that civilian disarmament in Burundi was "urgently needed" to facilitate national reconciliation, catalyse rural development, and ensure civilian safety. However, they stressed that disarmament is not yet feasible, as "all the reasons why Burundians keep arms are still there."

Few women interviewed expressed confidence in the outcome of the transition process, let alone their fellow citizens. "Between Burundians, a deep distrust has set in," a traumatic stress counsellor had confided. "Killing," the director of a women's cooperative sighed, "has become a banal affair." Armed robbery, rape, intimidation and extrajudicial revenge were increasing and the terror for civilians continues, the report notes.

- Recourse to armed violence for vengeance and material gain is commonplace, the report says. "Banditry and armed robbery, in particular, are legendary features of the security landscape across Burundi." Bandits, thieves and rapists in practical terms were benefiting from impunity.

Burundian journalist Jocelyne Sambira in the report's forward noted that the entire population had to take part in the guilt for this situation. "Who are these men in arms - other than our brothers, husbands and sons? Where are these arms stored other than our own homes?" she asks, urging Burundians to end their passivity, silence and fear.

It is estimated that 80 percent of households in the capital and larger provinces possess small arms. The government actively has promoted arms distribution since the 1970s. "What is even more shocking is that people interviewed for the research were against civilian disarmament and still support arms as a means of self-defence," noted Ms Sambira.

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