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Imelde Sabushimike: calling for the protection of Burundi's Batwa community

The Batwa, who make up approximately 1 per cent of the Burundi population, have historically lived as hunters and gatherers in the equatorial forests of Africa, says the Indigenous Fellow, Imelde Sabushimike. Their ancestral forests not only served as a means of survival, but they also played a central role in religious and cultural traditions.

As Imelde explains, approximately two decades ago, the Batwa lost their native land. Without land, compensation or skills to live outside the forests, the Batwa have been struggling to survive in their new environment.

The drastic lifestyle changes have left the Batwa in a “dungeon of despair”, says Imelde. “The new life was imposed on us without warning. We had no time to prepare to integrate into another life outside the forest.”

As a result of the imposed changes, there was a dramatic decline in the Batwa population and many have become ‘squatters’ on other peoples’ land.

Imelde recently participated in the four-week Indigenous Fellowship Programme of the United Nations Human Rights Office in Geneva. Since the launch of the Programme in 1997, around 270 indigenous men and women have been given the opportunity to learn about the UN system, human rights instruments and mechanisms with indigenous rights as a key component. The Indigenous Fellows also took part in the annual session of the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the group of experts appointed by the Human Rights Council to advise on indigenous issues.

In Imelde’s presentation at the UN Human Rights Office Indigenous Fellowship Programme in Geneva, she called for the integration of the Batwa into Burundi society and protection of their rights and identity as indigenous peoples.

“We live in extreme poverty and progress towards integration has been slow”, Imelde says.

Imelde believes they should have given them the mechanisms to integrate and survive, but instead they have been “marginalized, oppressed, discriminated against and left to themselves.”

According to Imelde, the Batwa are perceived to be of inferior social status in Burundi because they do not own land. “We have never possessed land or livestock, which is the principal method of earning a living in Burundi,” she says.

Imelde, who works for UNIPROBA (Unissons nous pour la Promotion des Batwa or Unite for the Promotion of the Batwa ), an NGO founded in 2003 to defend the rights of the Batwa community, has helped improve the quality of life of the Batwa by distributing land, livestock, hoes and seeds to the Batwa community.

In collaboration with UNIPROBA, Imelde is also promoting the formal education of Batwa children through the distribution of academic materials and school uniforms. Education is the key to development, Imelde says. “Without an education, job prospects are scarce.”

After completing the Indigenous Fellowship training programme in Geneva, Imelde plans to use her newly acquired skills to advance indigenous rights in the Batwa community.

2013 marks the 20th anniversary of the World Conference on Human Rights, which led to the adoption of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action and the establishment of a High Commissioner for Human Rights. Its creation gave a new impetus to the recognition of human rights principles which has seen fundamental progress in the promotion and protection of human rights.

In recent years, there have been significant advances in indigenous issues and rights, including the landmark adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007. In the same year, an Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was established by the Human Rights Council.

The United Nations Voluntary Fund for Indigenous Populations, established in 1985, gives indigenous peoples the opportunity to participate in the sessions of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, established in 2000, the Expert Mechanism, the Human Rights Council, including its Universal Periodic Review mechanism, and the treaty bodies. In 2012, the mandate of the Fund was expanded to include support for indigenous peoples to participate in the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples, to be held in 2014.

24 September 2013

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