In-depth: Our Bodies - Their Battle Ground: Gender-based Violence in Conflict Zones
BURUNDI: Fear condemns many to silence
Throughout the world young girls and women as victims of sexual attacks fear coming forward to complain or accuse their attackers. This only encourages the culture of impunity
BUJUMBURA, 1 September 2004 (IRIN) - Some organisations in Burundi offer abused women help in taking legal action against their violators, but caregivers say fear of retaliation, stigmatisation and rejection cause many survivors of gender-based violence to remain silent.
On average only about half of all women who are raped are willing to lay charges against the perpetrators, says Dominique Proteau, a field officer at a centre for rape victims run by Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) in the Burundi capital, Bujumbura. Only 10 to 15 percent actually go on to initiate legal proceedings, Proteau told IRIN.
Women and girls have been doubly affected by a civil war that has lasted all of 11 years in Burundi. Like their male counterparts, many have been killed, injured or displaced but, in addition to that, they are also subjected to various forms of abuse, including incest, sexual harassment, sexual slavery and rape.
Sometimes the perpetrators are combatants, like the rebels who gang-raped 19-year-old Nancy [not her real name] as she walked home from school one evening. She used to be a cheerful, confident girl who did well in school and dreamt of a bright future, she said. Since the attack, however, she has lost interest in her studies, and her dreams have been replaced by the nightmares brought on by her ordeal.
In many cases, however, the perpetrators are not combatants, but civilians, including family members, according to Dieudonné Nsanzamahoro, a psychologist at the Nturengaho Centre in Bujumbura, which takes care of rape victims [Nturengaho is Kirundi for "Stop it"].
"An adolescent girl obliged to have sex with her teacher or fail her exams, a woman forced to share her bed with her father-in-law, or a woman forced to sit in the living room in her panties after sex, all are victims of sexual violence," he said.
No one knows for sure how many women are subjected to rape. In 2003, 983 rape victims were registered countrywide, Iteka, a Burundian human rights group, reported this year. According to Proteau, MSF receives an average of 125 rape victims each month at its centre. However, these are just the ones who come forward. Many don't.
One of the reasons the victims keep silent, Nsanzamahoro says, is that, often, they are not taken seriously, especially since many offenders try to defend their actions by claiming that their victims had been provocative or had shown willingness.
Many of the women are reluctant to talk about their experiences because families and communities often reject those who go public. Nsanzamahoro cited the case of a girl from the commune of Kabezi in Bujumbura Rural Province who had been gang raped by rebels. She was taunted by her peers, who called her "assailants' wife". "In many cases, men simply abandon their wives to marry others," Proteau said.
Sometimes survivors are afraid they might be killed or maimed by their violators if they identify them. Another deterrent is the length of time it takes to complete legal proceedings which, in any event, often end with the release of the offenders or the imposition of light sentences.
The victims of abuses often suffer extensive physical and psychological injury. Sometimes the level of violence is so high - as when sharp objects are used by the rapists - that death or barrenness can result, Proteau said. Other risks include contracting sexually transmitted diseases or HIV/AIDS, and unwanted pregnancies.
A study on the obstacles to girls' education in Burundi, conducted in 2003 by the Forum of African Women Educationalists, found that unwanted pregnancies were, after poverty, the second highest cause of girls leaving school prematurely. It found that 28.4 percent of girls who drop out of school do so because of pregnancies, many of which result from sexual violence.
Abuse often results in psychological trauma, Nzansamahoro said. Some survivors of rape might live in permanent fear after the experience, reliving it endlessly in their minds or having recurrent nightmares. For some, the trauma can lead to mental depression and even suicide.
Institutions that seek to help survivors of rape and other gender-based violence in Burundi also include the Association for the Promotion of Human Rights and the Rights of Prisoners (APRODH), the Association of Women Lawyers and Search for Common Ground.
Some of the associations provide legal assistance, while some refer abused women to the MSF Centre.
Every rape victim who reports to the MSF centre has to see a gynaecologist for a complete medical check-up, Proteau said. They can receive contraceptive pills and, if they arrive within 72 hours of their ordeal, protection against HIV infection.
The Nturengaho centre offers rape victims a chance to talk about their ordeals, according to Nsanzamahoro. "We help them to express their fears and to turn their anger against the criminals and not against themselves," he said.
The MSF Centre also provides therapy, in some cases, group therapy. Proteau said several sessions were necessary, and at times women were encouraged to bring their husbands or a relative, so that they could be made aware of the need to assist the victims to regain their dignity. The centre also provides shelter for those unable or afraid to go home.
Caregivers say, however, that for aid to victims of rape and society's attitudes must change: the public must be persuaded to stop blaming the victims and focus more on ensuring that the criminals are properly punished.
Moreover, much of the available assistance is urban based. There is less access to help in the countryside and, even in towns, not everyone has access to information on where to go and what to do when abused.