Abuse, impunity and sexual violence in Burundi

Women and girls are nearly four times more likely than men to experience sexual violence in Burundi. Survivors endure a culture of silence and impunity around sex-related crimes that further threatens their fragile situation.

By Juan Haro
A girl carries a baby on her back, Burundi
UNICEF Burundi/2018/Haro
14 June 2018

MABANDA, Burundi, 14 June 2018 – “Around 6 p.m. on a Monday in January 2017, a friend called me to meet me near my house. I knew him as a friend,” remembers Gloria*, 17, leaning against the crumbling, unpainted walls of the Mabanda health centre.

“We talked for a bit and everything was normal. Then he asked me to have sex with him. I refused. I tried to escape, but he hit me with a machete. I lost consciousness. All I remember is that he raped me a few meters from the main road of my village.”

It wasn’t until 3 p.m. the next day that someone from Gloria’s family found her. Still unconscious, she was taken to the nearest health centre, where health workers referred the badly injured young woman to the district hospital in Makamba Province. She was diagnosed with severe brain trauma and genital injuries.

It would be 15 days before Gloria woke up.

A woman smiles at another woman holding a baby, Burundi
UNICEF Burundi/2018/Haro
Gloria, 17, who is still recovering from the consequences of being abused, raped, impregnated and abandoned talks to her psychologist, Esperance (pictured on the left).
Waking to a nightmare

When she came to, her father was at her side. “My heart was beating so fast and I felt terrible. I went crazy. I wanted to run in the street. I couldn’t sleep or eat,” she recalls.

Soon after, Gloria found out the rape had made her pregnant. Her son is now 4 months old.

Gloria and her family tried to find the man who raped her. But he was gone – the Burundian police confirmed that the perpetrator had escaped to Tanzania.

Sexual abuse, a growing phenomenon

Nearly one in four Burundian women (23%) and 6% of men have experienced sexual violence, and children are particularly at risk. Only a small percentage of sex-related incidents are reported, so the actual number is likely much higher.

Survivors in this East African nation typically don’t report rape and sexual assault. Some fear reprisal by the perpetrator or negative reactions from their families. Most don’t know where and how to get help, living in rural communities where quality health and psycho-social support are virtually non-existent. Few victims get the care they need to heal physically and emotionally.

As Gloria tried to put the pieces of her life back together, she faced another battle: her family’s perceptions of sexual abuse. “My family blamed me, saying that I let him do it. It was a nightmare,” she says.

A woman sits against a white wall, Burundi
UNICEF Burundi/2018/Haro
Espérance listens to Gloria at the Mabanda health centre. When Gloria first came to the centre, she couldn't talk about her trauma. “After two weeks of therapy and several house visits, she started talking to me," says Espérance.
The right response

Through the Giriteka project, or ‘have dignity’ in Kirundi – the national language of Burundi – UNICEF and local NGO partner Caritas Burundi are providing medical professionals with the tools to help victims of sexual violence, exploitation and abuse. Doctors and nurses are learning to provide the necessary medical and psycho-social support and emergency shelter when needed. Psychologists and community leaders are being trained to prevent sexual and physical violence against women, while working with local and religious authorities on how to refer survivors to health and physiological facilities. They also learn how to prevent new cases from occurring in their communities by raising awareness about the devastating consequences of sexual violence on women and girls.

When Gloria left the hospital, she learned that help was available at the Mabanda health centre. She met with Espérance Nisengue, one of 25 psychologists trained by the Giriteka project. Espérance, whose name means ‘hope’, oversees the reception and support to victims like Gloria in the centre.

At the beginning, the psychologist recalls, Gloria couldn’t say a word. “After two weeks of therapy and several house visits, she started talking to me. I gained her confidence and then began counselling her and her family. Now, she is leaving the trauma behind.”

Since the project began in January 2017, 145 cases of gender-based violence have been reported at the Mabanda health centre, including 16 cases of sexual violence and 100 cases of domestic violence.

The road to recovery

“With the attention I have received from the psychologist, I am feeling better and better. I have changed,” Gloria says, smiling as she talks about her new life and her baby, whom she named ‘Innocent'. “I have a baby that I love and who needs me. I must be strong and continue with my life. Esperance is still helping me. She is the reason I feel mentally recovered.”

“The situation for girls and women in Burundi is dramatic,” says Gloria. “We need information, support and protection…or else things will turn for the worse.”

Though the road to recovery for survivors of sexual violence and abuse is long, particularly in a country where psychological support is relatively unknown, the Giriteka project is working to reverse the harmful, life-long physical and psychological consequences of trauma for women and girls.


*name changed to protect identity