Burundian women reclaim self-worth thanks to their resilience

Amida Uwingabiye, female leader, businesswoman and driver in Muyinga Province: Photo by Arthur Bizimana, used with permission

Translated by Laura Dunne
This article was republished by Global Voices under a media partnership agreement with www.ibihe.org. The original article can be found on Ibihe.org.

Amida Uwingabiye’s story is sadly not uncommon for Burundian women: she was thrown out of her home and abused by her husband for giving birth to a girl. She subsequently lived in poverty from 2003–2009. According to the Demographic and Health Survey in Burundi (EDSB III), published by the National Institute of Statistics of Burundi (INSBU) in 2019, around 36 percent of Burundian women experienced physical violence between 2016–2017. In fact, while 10 percent of women reported physical violence during pregnancy, 23 percent also reported sexual violence. Didace Ndayikengurukiye, a researcher in family sociology, explains the origins of gender-based violence in Burundi:

Les violences basées sur le genre prennent racine dans la culture burundaise. Puisque nous sommes dans le système patriarcat, les normes de la société favorisent la gent masculine et discriminent discrètement la gent féminine. L’un se sent supérieur à l’autre. Ce comportement se répand surtout chez les non instruits habitant en milieu rural.

Gender-based violence is rooted in Burundian culture. As we’re part of a patriarchal system, societal norms favor men whilst subtly discriminating against women. One acts superior to the other. This behavior is common amongst uneducated individuals in rural areas.

This survey (EDSB III) appears to confirm the influence of educational backgrounds on gender-based violence:

Les femmes comme les hommes ayant atteint au moins le niveau secondaire et appartenant au quintile de bien-être le plus riche ont moins de risques d’être victimes de violences physiques et conjugales.

Men and women in the wealthiest quintile, with at least a secondary education, are both less likely to be victims of physical and domestic abuse.

How Amida overcame gender-based violence (GBV)

As a victim of psychological trauma, Amida had lost all confidence before launching her own association in 2009 to address another major issue: poverty amongst homeless women. Between 2016–2017, the poverty rate for Burundi’s divorced, separated, and widowed women increased to 76.8 percent, while this rate for married women increased to 56.5 percent over the same period. With an average annual income of 186 euros (USD 202), Burundi is one of the poorest countries in the world. More than half of the country’s population, that’s to say 51.4 percent, live below the poverty line.

Thanks to the support of Janvière Nibaruta, a moderator for the Nawe Nuze (Come with Us) Care International Initiative, Amida founded the association “Garukira abakenyezi bahukanye n’inkumi zavyariye iwabo” (Standing by Divorced and Unmarried Women). This association brings together women from Masasu Hill in the Gasorwe commune of the country’s north-eastern Muyinga Province. She proudly recalls:

Trois mois après le début des activités de la caisse d’épargne en 2009, j’ai contracté un emprunt de 15 000 Fbu (5.3 dollars américains) à la coopérative pour démarrer le commerce de légumes au marché de Gasorwe. Grâce à ce capital, j’ai réussi. En quatre mois seulement, je suis passé de 15 000 Fbu à 400 000 Fbu (140 dollars américains).

Three months after the savings bank began operating in 2009, I secured a loan of BIF 15,000 (USD 5.3) from this cooperative to begin selling vegetables on Gasorwe market. I was successful thanks to this loan. In just four months, I had gone from BIF 15,000 to BIF 400,000 (USD 140).

Amida constantly reinvents herself

However, after becoming quickly disillusioned by her customers not paying the correct prices, Amida changed focus and started selling women’s clothing and shoes instead. Over time, a fellow trader introduced her to the Kampala market in Uganda to find items to sell. With a capital of just BIF 800,000 (USD 281.69), she managed to make a profit that saw her capital double in just a week. That said, she notes the difficulty she had in speaking English in this Ugandan market:

Pour m’approvisionner à Kampala, capitale de l’Ouganda, je touchais sur l’article à acheter et avec ma calculatrice, je montrais au vendeur le prix que j’aimerais payer. Le pouvoir de négociation avec mes fournisseurs d’habits était très mince, car je communiquais comme une sourde-muette, mais quand même, je m’y suis habituée.

To stock up in Uganda’s capital city of Kampala, I would tap on the item I wanted to buy and show the vendor the price I wanted to pay on my calculator. My ability to negotiate with my clothing suppliers was pretty limited since I communicated like a deaf person. However, I got used to it even so.

Fraud at its peak

In 2014, when cases of fraud were spiking in Muyinga, one of the country’s 18 provinces, Amida was found to be working illegally by the Burundi Revenue Authority (OBR). She says:

OBR m’a pris de court à cette époque en saisissant les marchandises d’une valeur de 7 000 0000 FBu (2464 dollars américains) et en les vendant à l’enchère quand je faisais la fraude.

At that time, OBR caught me off guard by seizing my goods worth BIF 7,000,000 (USD 2,464) and selling them at auction when I had committed fraud.

Amida now appreciates the importance of associations like the Burundi Association of Business Women (AFAB) and the Burundi Cross Border Traders Association (ACTF), which educate traders in the practice of legal trading by complying with taxation laws and regulations. What’s more, she calls upon these organizations to intensify their efforts and further educate business owners in this area. In 2016, Amida received business management and financial education training from Young Entrepreneurs’ Park (PARJE). She also won a competition as part of the “Campagne Narateye Intambwe” (I Stepped Up) project on saving and borrowing. For three months, she traveled across the country, using her experience as a lesson for other women.

Mobile restaurant

However, her journey doesn’t end there. She explains:

De retour de ma tournée triomphale d’affaires, mon frère de sang, en qui j’avais placé toute ma confiance, jusqu’à lui donner accès à mes comptes bancaires en cas de mon absence, m’a dérobé une somme de 20 millions Fbu, soit environ  7 040 dollars américains (…) je lui faisais confiance et il m’a trahi.

Upon returning from my triumphant business trip, my blood brother, who had my full confidence and even had access to my bank accounts in my absence, had stolen BIF 20,000,000 from me, which is around USD 7,040 (…) I trusted him, and he betrayed me.

She sought to get back on her feet despite suffering this painful blow. No longer able to continue with her business, she moved on to mobile food services instead. Due to a lack of appropriate equipment, she sold her car to buy kitchen utensils for her new business. Today, Amida can feed 150 people per day. In a business with a capital of BIF 1,000,000 (USD 352), she employs more than 20 individuals when she receives event orders. Amida is also involved in the trading of foodstuffs, like rice and beans in Kobero, a border town on the border with Tanzania. As she is in high demand and thereby unable to accommodate all her customers, she took out a two-year loan of BIF 7,500,000 (USD 2,640) with the Burundian NGO, Union of Cooperation and Development (UCODE), which she will pay back in regular monthly installments.

Challenges of getting a loan as a women 

Amida, the owner of a home mortgaged at more than BIF 30,000,000 (USD 10,563), says she had applied for a loan of over BIF 7,500,000 (USD 2,640). UCODE eventually granted her BIF 7,500,000. Data from the Bank of the Republic of Burundi is consistent with Amida’s testimony. According to the latest report on the range of formal financial products and services available in Burundi, which was conducted in 2016 and published in 2017, women had less access to loans than men, both as individual customers and associations. Over the space of three years, women saw a fall in their access to loans as individuals. The number of women gaining access to loans dropped from 141,970 in 2014 to 81,558 in 2016. This is a fall of 57.4 percent. However, men saw an increase in their access to loans as individuals over this same period. The number of men gaining access to loans thereby increased from 214,346 to 317,126, which is an increase of 67.6 percent over this three-year period. For Amida, getting a bank loan as a businesswoman is a real struggle:

Cela faisait plus de deux ans que je demandais ce prêt, mais en vain. Toutefois, j’avais présenté tous les matériaux nécessaires. Les banquiers accordent difficilement les crédits aux femmes. Ils prennent à la légère les demandes de crédits des femmes. Il a fallu l’intervention d’un fonctionnaire du Care International qui a entendu mon témoignage pour décrocher ce prêt.

Although I had submitted all the necessary information, I had been asking for this loan for more than two years to no avail. Bankers reluctantly grant women loans. They don’t take women’s requests for loans seriously. It took the intervention of a Care International employee, who listened to my testimony, to get this loan.

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