Three women’s stories: IFAD’s support for legal defence for vulnerable women in Burundi

Written by Maria Hartl, Senior Technical Specialist - Gender and Social Equity, IFAD/PTA

Nothing is more motivating and rewarding than going on mission to an IFAD-supported project, meeting participants and realizing that your work has made a difference to their lives. It is a humbling experience. Such were my feelings last week, when during a supervision mission for the “Programme de développement des filieres” (PRODEFI) in Burundi, I met three women whose lives have changed dramatically thanks to the legal defence activities that we enabled and which have grown in importance over the years.


These activities were first established in 2008 with supplementary funding to IFAD from the Government of Canada, under the “Legal Empowerment of Women Programme” (LEWI). They were then integrated into the IFAD-supported “Programme de Relance et de Développement du Monde Rural“ (PRDMR), the “Projet d’appui à l’intensification et à la valorisation agricoles du Burundi” (PAIVA-B) and also “ PRODEFI. A long history by now which shows a strong support from many sides: IFAD, the donor community, the Government and civil society of Burundi.

Under the legal defence activities, the programme trained over 530 women leaders as “para-juristes” and provided support to vulnerable women, girls and orphans in Gitega and Kayanza province of Burundi on land conflict and sexual violence. About 1,900 cases (90 per cent submitted by women) have been considered. More than 200 of the para legals have now created an association, with the support of PRODEFI.

In Burundi and in other countries, conflicts often arise over access to home and land, and frequently lead to physical violence against women. Many are based on traditional cultural beliefs and attitudes. The women whom I met on the supervision mission were ostracized for not giving birth to large numbers of children, in particular sons.

“The community and family development centers have helped me a lot”, said 52-year-old Consolate with tears in her eyes. She had given birth to two daughters and could not get pregnant again. Her husband wanted a son and took a second wife to live with him in the family home. He and his family treated Consolate badly and wanted her to leave the house. She went to the village chief for help but he refused to intervene. At that time she was attending meetings organized by PRODEFI and heard about the legal assistance provided by the community and family development centres (CFDC). With their support she went to court and introduced a claim on her share of the family property. Her husband and the in-laws were convinced she would drop the complaint, but she persisted. She lost in the first instance, but went for an appeal. Even the judge did not take her serious and said a small woman like her would not be able to touch her husband even with the support of the project. It took 10 years of persistence, until Consolate finally got access to her share of the house and land. “Without the family and community development centres many women would be unhappy”, she said.

Fifty-one year old Imelde’s story is similar to Consolate’s. She was a widow, and got married for the second time to a widower who became increasingly violent when she did not get pregnant. He started to look for a second wife and wanted to evict her from the house. One night he got so violent that Imelde ran away in fear of her life, barely dressed and leaving everything behind. She went to the CFDC for help, and they wrote a letter to the village chief and her husband, asking to hand over her belongings. When the husband filed for divorce without her consent, she again looked to the CDFC for support. It took five years, until she received a judgement giving her a share of the land that had been jointly acquired when she was married.

The husband of Nahimana (45 years) had fled to Tanzania and not sent her any news for 14 years. When he returned to the village and found her with 2 children from another man, he threw her out of the house. Nahimana returned to her own family home, but her brothers also did not want her. She had no place to stay for a long time, until with legal support she put a claim in on the joint house and property. Nahimana says that literacy classes helped her a lot, and raised her awareness. For 6 months, twice a week she attended a functional literacy class offered by PRODEFI that uses the REFLECT methodology. She became more self-confident and learnt how to express herself. She is still waiting for the final judgement on her request for fair share of the family home and land, but she is confident.

These stories of three women show how pain, powerlessness and humiliation are the invisible effects of violence. Violence and fear of violence lower women’s self-esteem and confidence and prevent them from speaking up. Where access to land is needed for food and income like in rural areas of Burundi, its loss threatens the basis of existence.

For IFAD, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women on 25 November gives us the opportunity to think about women like Consolate, Imelde and Nahimana. We have come a long way in recognizing that gender-based violence is an impediment to rural women’s empowerment. More and more projects are addressing violence against women and women’s security, prevention of violence and harassment. The legal support that PRODEFI provides in Burundi is one of the best examples. It also reflects the dedication of all those colleagues and partners who insisted on integrating the programme into a loan financed rural development programme. And it has made a huge difference to the lives of thousands of rural women.

IFAD video “Justice for Maura” 

Short version (3:30)

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Long version (15:00)

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