7 May 2002

Focus on sexual violence among Burundi refugees

Workers in the field of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) agree that such incidences tend to be particularly prevalent among refugee populations, due to a mixture of dire socioeconomic circumstances and pressures. "Due to the situation in the camps, husbands are not able to afford food for their families, or clothing. They are also idle all day, and drink local brews. And their poor economic status leads to a lot of violence," Juster Ruttaba, SGBV officer from aid agency Norwegian People's Aid (NPA), told IRIN.

The SGBV project in the refugee camps in Ngara, western Tanzania, was established three years ago, "because we found that many women were being raped, sexually harassed, being forced into early marriages, and suffering from domestic violence," Ruttaba said. Of the almost 360 people assisted so far this year, about 95 percent of cases were related to domestic violence.

"A month ago there was a case where a man gave his wife 100 shillings [about US 10 cents] to buy vegetables. She was eight months pregnant, and told him she was too tired to go out shopping. Then he went off drinking to the local bar. He came back later, she gave him his evening meal, and they both went to bed. At six a.m. he woke up, took an axe and attacked her - she had seven deep gashes including in her pregnant abdomen and her eye. She lost the eye," said Ruttaba, but managed to give birth to a healthy baby.

Another woman had arrived for help at the project just a day or two beforehand. She had been captured by bandits outside the refugee camps, and held captive for several days. "There were four of them, three who were armed. They made her cook and work for them, and repeatedly raped her. They kept her as a "shared wife". Eventually she managed to escape from the unarmed captor, and later reported the case to the police. "Among a 'normal' population we also have violence, but it's not reported. In the refugee camps more and more cases are being reported, because of the awareness-raising we are doing," said Ruttaba.

The vast majority of rapes occur outside of the refugee camps, where women are searching for firewood or farming to earn some money. Many of the cases occur among minors: of the 13 cases reported to the SGBV project in Ngara from the beginning of this year through the end of April, 11 of the victims were 18 years old or under, with six aged between 10 and 15, and two between six and nine. In 2001, 53 out of 76 cases were among girls of 18 or under, with 22 aged between 10 and 15, and 18 between less than a year old and nine. While in some cases children were physically forced to have intercourse, in others they were given food or payment in kind, said Ruttaba.

"The rapists take advantage of the fact that women have to leave the camps for firewood, and also because there are few police outside," she said. "Some children are also left alone all day when their mothers are out working." Whenever a rape is reported, the victim is given a medical examination, counselling, emergency contraceptives and helped to file a police report if she wishes. In April 2002, of the 71 cases of rape reported to the Ngara SGBV project, three were handled by the police, with local tribunals involving respected elders and chiefs handling 37.

Of the 68 cases of domestic violence reported to the Ngara SGBV project in April 2002, 23 occurred as a result of polygamy/boyfriend/girlfriend problems, 15 over food rations, and 14 due to prostitution. Local practices, such as polygamy, were a major cause of domestic violence, noted Ruttaba. Due to the particularly poor economic status of women refugees, several women are often keen to marry the same man. This can lead to ill-feeling or violence between the wives, which can in turn lead to a husband becoming violent.

In some cases, men are also attacked by their wives. "In cases where husbands are impotent, some men are harrassed and attacked by their wives. We are also encouraging them to report to us," said Ruttaba. In April alone, there were eight cases reported of women attacking men, 28 of men attacking women, and 32 involving women being attacked by members of the wider family. A significant number (34) of the incidences occurred within three days of food distributions taking place. In some cases, cultural practices and values effectively enslave women. "If you don't produce three or four children you will be divorced," Angelina Ballart of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) told IRIN.

Moreover, many women are also not allowed to use contraceptives. "The husbands don't like them to use it. They want more children because of the war situation. The husbands are a great obstacle," she said. UNICEF estimates that only 3.2 percent of women use family planning methods. Among those who do, injections are popular, because they are required only once every three months, and can be given in secret.

Many young girls between 13 and 16 years old are forced into marriages, so that parents who are in desperate economic circumstances can obtain a dowry.

In order to educate the refugees about sexual and gender-based violence - defined as "forcing another individual, through violence, threats, deception, cultural expectations, weapons, or economic circumstances, to engage in behaviour against his or her will" - social workers went from row to row of mud houses in the camps to raise awareness. Meetings were held with local leaders, peer education done, videos about preventative measures shown, and discussions encouraged, said Ruttaba.

Last year, an initiative was launched by local communities whereby people tried to monitor which men were conspicuously absent when a rape occurred outside the camps, in order to establish who the culprits were. Women were also being escorted by self-appointed "guards" when they left the camps to get firewood. While it was both a radical and welcome initiative, with time interest had waned and many women were back to looking after themselves, Ruttaba said.

Some men were beginning to show interest in the project, she said, but the numbers would have to increase for change to occur. "We need to involve more men, because they're the ones who are causing the problem. (IRIN)


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