Beyond Violence 

Will Burundi Women Change the Politics of their Country through the Current Conflict?

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Women are often perceived as having no other roles in conflict than being the victims of violence. They are being deeply affected by violent conflicts, often becoming the targets of sexual violence. Rape becomes a tool of warfare: it has been used during the armed conflicts in former Yugoslavia and is still occurring in the civil war in Democratic Republic of Congo and the armed violence portrayed by Islamic State. Being amongst the greatest victims of violent conflicts, it is incomprehensible that women are not greatly involved in peace building. At first sight, it seems that Burundi is making progress in this regard: women have been mobilised in the peace process leading to integration of gender equality in the democratic governance and to the creation of structures that helped women claim their rights.

Trapped in Tradition

However, the women of Burundi realise that they are still trapped by the traditions of their country: restricting women to their role in the private sphere only, whereas they want to act in the public sphere. This has recently motivated women to voice their opinions publicly on the conflict, mainly by means of protesting and demonstrating. The current tensions in Burundi have led to a gathering of hundreds of women in the capital Bujumbura, demonstrating to keep the Arusha Agreement and the constitution, which states that a president can only run two terms. “We are mothers. It is our children who are killed. It is our children who are in prison. We are here to respect human rights. We are here against the third term,” the women chanted bravely.

It could very well be that women entering the political arena in Burundi can change the dynamics of the violent conflict. Some Burundian women see an opportunity for themselves now that a realignment of the existing political order is to be established. The underlying motive is obviously to seek greater political decision-making power. Because women have a status of not being politically involved in public and holding very different interests than their male counterparts when it comes down to politics, it is a slightly shocking to the general public that these women are speaking up. Addressing gender issues, and advancing the needs and interests of women, often win votes, even for male politicians as it is harkening to the will of the people. Whereas this seems like good news for women’s progress, it turns out to not create much change after all.

For example, Burundian women make up more than a third in the Cabinet and according to the World Economic Forum, Burundi was amongst one of the three countries that most reduced their gender gap in 2014. They even made progress in dealing with sexual violence: rape has been made punishable by life imprisonment and the taboo of speaking out against sexual violence is broken. But unfortunately, it is tradition and poverty that makes that these well-intentioned changes on paper not change reality. If a woman mentions that she is raped, tradition dictates that her family throws her in a hole alive and wait for her to die. Girls are often married off at an early age, because the family of the girl needs the dowry and the family thinks, or wants to believe, that their child is better off with a man who can take care of her. Although 18 has been the legal marriage age for Burundi girls since 1993, forced marriages of girls much younger than 18 still happen due to the lack of a specific law punishing forced marriages. Other female family members tell the daughters that it is forbidden to speak out when her husband maltreats her and if she speaks out, she will be send back to her family who will then reject her. She is therefore left in a very vulnerable position.

Quantity as a Determinant for Quality – the Misinterpretation of the Critical Mass Theory

It is long believed that a gender quota of 30 per cent women in parliament is a significant turning point and a qualitative shift will take place creating beneficial legislation for women: the so-called critical mass theory. This theory is too often interpreted in this way assuming that the quantity of women representatives is the key determinant to influence the quality of life of all women. This misinterpretation has had significant influence on the global spread of gender quotas. Given its status as a tool for change this idea of a critical mass is not given up easily. This is unfortunate as it is being used as an easy excuse for gender equality within governance, but does not elicit any change in reality. It actually only retains the status quo. It would be much better to be about what kind of acts are being done for the benefit of women, to determine if a difference is made in gendered policy debates, instead of the number of women seated in parliament. Only then will women-friendly policy outcomes have a greater chance of becoming a reality.

Written by S. Gehrlein and published on 19-August-2015

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