Back in April 2015, following a ruling by Burundi’s constitutional court that allowed President Pierre Nkurunziza to stand for a third term, massive protests broke out. During these demonstrations, a fledgling women’s protest movement was born.
However, following a bloody crackdown, tens of thousands of Burundians fled the country; this included most of the leaders of the women’s movement, which would eventually be named the Women and Girls Movement for Peace and Security in Burundi (MFFPS).
Many of the group’s members went to Rwanda, which is where they met up with Marie Louise Baricako. A Burundian, Baricako had been working in the United States when the conflict broke out, but traveled to Rwanda to meet the women.
As the former executive director of Femmes Africa Solidarité (“Women Africa Solidarity”), she had spent years promoting women’s rights across Africa, in particular women’s involvement in conflict resolution and peace-building efforts; the previous year, she had been appointed to an independent panel tasked with assessing the United Nations’ peacekeeping operations. Given her experience, the women asked Baricako to take the movement’s helm.
Now, more than two years into Burundi’s crisis, MFFPS continues to work with women inside the country, who they say must stay anonymous for fear of repercussions. The United Nations recently denounced continuing human rights violations in the country, including arbitrary arrests, torture, enforced disappearances, extrajudicial executions and sexual violence.
Women & Girls spoke to Baricako about bringing peace to Burundi.
Women & Girls: How was this women’s movement born?
Marie Louise Baricako: During the protests, women rose up, including many who had never been part of any movement before. But they felt that as women and girls, they had to show that they too wanted rule of law, democracy, peace and security in their country.
The movement is made up of all sorts of women from all over Burundi, from every ethnicity. They come from all walks of life, and some have been involved in politics before – some were even previously involved with the ruling party. But our movement is not aligned with any party. We are not part of the opposition. We just want peace and security.
Women & Girls: How has this crisis affected women – in particular, those who have openly criticized the government?
Baricako: Many women – whether young or old – have been detained and raped by security forces or by the Imbonerakure, which is the powerful youth wing of the ruling party. We’ve been collecting testimony from those who fled the country.
For example, one Burundian girl I met in a refugee camp in Rwanda, who is only 15 years old, was raped and gave birth to a child here. She can no longer go to school and she says nobody wants to hold her child, because his father – the man who raped her – was a member of the Imbonerakure. We encourage victims who have fled to speak out so that more will come forward, but also so we can in due time bring their testimony to the International Criminal Court.
Meanwhile, women who have been raped and who are still in Burundi cannot speak about it publicly, because they fear they will be arrested again, or that their families will be targeted. I know one woman in her fifties who was raped in detention by five or six men, but who cannot talk about it.
Rape has been used – and continues to be used – as a weapon of intimidation. Just a few months ago, a video spread on social media showing the Imbonerakure singing a chant that calls on men to “impregnate opponents so they give birth to Imbonerakure.” [Editor’s Note: The chant was condemned by the U.N. human rights chief.] This was not an isolated incident – this chant has been heard all over the country.
Despite everything that’s happened, our movement’s members don’t see themselves as victims of the crisis, but rather as agents of change.
Women & Girls: Can women inside the country work on peace-building efforts?
Baricako: They cannot make public statements. A few of them do, but it’s really risky. They are not allowed to hold gatherings, either – unless it’s to say that everything’s fine, of course. But they are busy sensitizing and mobilizing for peace: they engage in private discussions among themselves and with different groups, and they give us information about human rights violations. Many women have also welcomed people who have been hurt in the conflict into their homes.
Women & Girls: What about women in exile?
Baricako: Our movement has representatives all over the globe, so at every opportunity we try to alert world’s leaders as to what’s happening inside Burundi.
We’ve also been working to make sure women get a seat at the table during peace negotiations. There have been several rounds of talks held in Uganda and in Tanzania. Our representatives have participated to offer the women and girls’ perspective on the crisis. But the Burundian government has refused to take part in any real negotiations so far – they consider anybody who’s not on their side as putschists, and won’t sit down in the same room with them. So we meet with the negotiator separately!
To our surprise, during talks held in February, women were not invited. In fact, nobody from civil society was invited, only politicians. We said, “That’s not possible – women’s representatives must always be present.” So we sent three of our members anyway, and they dropped off a message in writing.
Women & Girls: Do you think these talks will be successful?
Baricako: Not if they continue in the same manner. There can’t be negotiations when one party refuses to see that there’s a problem, and refuses to sit down with the people with whom they are in conflict.
I hope that one day, people will come to their senses. And when that happens, and when we sit down to look for real solutions to our country’s problems, women need to be present. We’re very encouraged by the example of Rwanda in this regard – it was able to recover from a horrible past, and it did so by including women.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
This story is part of our in-depth series, Women of Peace, which examines the contributions of women peacemakers throughout the world, as well as the challenges they face in the field. To explore the collection, please visit our dedicated mini-site.