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Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women examines the reports of Burundi

Committee on Elimination of Discrimination
against Women 

26 October 2016

The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women today considered the combined fifth to sixth periodic reports of Burundi on its implementation of the provisions of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

Introducing the reports, Elisa Nkerabirori, Assistant to the Minister of Human Rights, Social Affairs and Gender, said that in order to address sexual and gender-based violence, Burundi had set up a working group on sexual and gender-based violence, adopted laws on preventing and punishing trafficking in human beings, while special sessions were being organized by the Ministry of Justice to try sexual and gender-based violence cases.  Priority was given to addressing harmful traditional practices and domestic violence and eradicating the phenomenon of human trafficking, while the centre on the prevention of genocide had been set up.  Equal access to education for girls and boys had been achieved in the 2011-2012 academic year.  Free health care had been provided for women and girls in childbirth and those with children under five.  The Government reaffirmed, without any reservation, its commitment to pursuing all efforts to definitely eradicate the inequalities and all discrimination regarding the status of women, and to promoting gender equality.

In the ensuing dialogue, Committee Experts asked about steps taken to resolve the current conflict, and the involvement of women in the process, as well as measures to assist those fleeing the violence, including women and children.  The Parliament of Burundi had decided to withdraw from the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, which could represent a setback in the right against impunity – what was the intention of the Government in that regard and the timeframe?  Experts also inquired about criminalization of war crimes and crimes against humanity and how the independence of the judiciary could be guaranteed in possible trials.  The delegation was asked about measures taken to defend the rights and safety and security of human rights defenders, to cut down the often excessive duration of pre-trial detention, and to pass the relevant legislation on women’s rights.  Experts were concerned about the reports of the youth wing of the ruling party massively raping women involved in anti-government protests, and asked about steps to bring the perpetrators to justice and to investigate and prosecute cases of sexual and gender-based violence committed since April 2015.

In her concluding remarks, Ms. Nkerabirori said that the issue of women was a priority for the Government of Burundi and that Burundi would keep the Committee appraised on the progress made.

The delegation of Burundi included representatives of the Ministry of Human Rights, Social Affairs and Gender; a State Senator; the Directorate General for the Promotion of Women and Gender Equality;  the Ministry of Education, Higher Education and Scientific Research; the Ministry of Justice; and the Permanent Mission of Burundi to the United Nations Office at Geneva.

The Committee will reconvene in public on Thursday, 27 October, at 10 a.m. to consider the combined eighth and ninth periodic reports of Bhutan CEDAW/C/BTN/8-9.   

The combined fifth to sixth periodic reports of Burundi can be found here.
Presentation of the Reports

ELISA NKERABIRORI, Assistant to the Minister of Human Rights, Social Affairs and Gender, stated that Burundi appreciated all recommendations provided by the Committee in the past, and would accept today’s recommendations in the same spirit.  The current reports showed significant progress since January 2008, the last time Burundi had held a dialogue with the Committee. Burundi was trying to tackle numerous challenges with the help of different partners.  Women were effectively represented in decision-making bodies, but deep-seated reforms still needed to be carried out.  Each society was to develop at its own pace, said Ms. Nkerabirori.

A working group on sexual and gender-based violence had been set up.  Efforts were being made for proper care of victims and support to survivors.  An open day had been organized to inform the population about the implementation of Security Council resolution 1325 (2000).  The 2005 Constitution guaranteed the equality of all before the law.  In 2014, an act had been promulgated on preventing and punishing trafficking in human beings, and additional acts had been passed to protect victims of sexual and gender-based violence.  Special sessions were organized by the Ministry of Justice to try sexual and gender-based violence cases; a two-week session was currently underway.  From the operational point of view, a fund for legal aid had been set up at the Ministry of Justice to pay for lawyers representing vulnerable groups in courts, including women.  Family and community development centres had the task of guiding and supporting victims of sexual and gender-based violence.  The Government had also created a centre on the prevention of genocide. 

Women’s emancipation was a crucial goal to be achieved.  Efforts were made to ease the access of women to financial institutions so that they could more easily receive microloans for income-generating activities.  The low level of literacy and the weak capacity of women to access production resources were a significant challenge; improving traditional savings and credit practices was one of the ways to address it.  The authorities were aware of the existing shortcomings in the field of finance in spite of the ongoing Government’s efforts.  Equal access to education for girls and boys had been achieved in the 2011-2012 academic year.  Burundi continued to take efforts to ensure deep-seated reforms in the labour sector.  When it came to social security,  the existing programmes covered a very small part of the population because most households were unable to contribute.  A sustainable framework for social security in Burundi ought to be set up, said Ms. Nkerabirori.  The priority had now been given to social assistance programmes which were non-contributory in nature.   Free health care had been provided for women and girls in childbirth and those with children under five.  Women and girls had access to all sporting and cultural activities in all areas of the country.

Harmful traditional practices and domestic violence were among the priority issues beings addressed by the Government.  The National Police had carried out a number of activities to eradicate the phenomenon of human trafficking.  Trainings of police officers in that regard were organized on a regular basis, and international partners, such as the World Bank, were helping in that regard.  Stepping up prevention activities through 16 days of activism campaigns to prevent violence against women was also on the Government’s agenda.  Community networks were strengthened to prevent and fight sexual and gender-based violence at the local level.  Girls were able to return to schools after carrying out early pregnancies, and contraception was now being used more widely.  The Government reaffirmed, without any reservation, its commitment to pursuing all efforts to definitely eradicate the inequalities and all discrimination regarding the status of women, and to promoting gender equality.

Questions by Experts

An Expert said that some discriminatory laws still remained in place in Burundi.  What was the timeline for ratifying the Optional Protocol to the Convention?  When would the process to adopt the reform of the Personal and Family Code begin? Question was asked if the State party was planning to adopt a general law on discrimination, and what the timeline was for that work. 

Article 19 stated that the Convention was an integral part of the Constitution, said the Expert.  Were there plans to review the legal system in order to improve the existing laws and their functioning?  She also wanted to know about procedural guarantees for the provision of legal aid.  What measures were taken to ensure the training of judges on women’s rights?

Question was asked about measures taken to defend the rights and safety and security of human rights defenders.

What was being done to cut down the often excessive duration of pre-trial detention, and to liberate at least those women who were not accused of serious crimes, asked the Expert.

Another Expert asked about plans on further developments and revisions of the National Action Plan.

In the connection with the violence in Burundi and the large number of nationals being displaced, question was asked on what was being done to help those fleeing, including women and children.  Was there any data on the numbers of refugees and internally displaced persons?

The delegation was asked about steps taken to resolve the current conflict, and the involvement of women in the process. 

The Parliament of Burundi had decided to withdraw from the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, noted the Expert.   That could represent a setback in the right against impunity, she said.  Information was requested on the intention of Burundi to withdraw from the Rome Statute, and a possible timeframe.  Had that decision been taken in the consultation with the civil society or the judiciary?  Some actors had criticized that move as withdrawing from the norms of rule of law and democracy.  Would Burundi continue to cooperate with the International Criminal Court investigators within next one year?

Had war crimes and crimes against humanity been criminalized in Burundi?  How could the independence of the judiciary be guaranteed in possible trials, asked the Expert.

Replies by the Delegation

Regarding the timelines to review the Personal and Family Code, the delegation said that the process was already underway.   There were indeed discriminatory laws in place, and there was a need to review it, but it was difficult to provide information on the timeline. 

On the issue of restrictions placed on civil society, the delegation explained that some organizations had been suspended because they had not been operating in line with the non-profit principles and had aligned themselves with radical political positions.  The Government felt that the so-called “demonstrations against the third mandate of the President” had actually constituted a violent uprising. 

The Constitution, as the fundamental law, did not discriminate against women, but instead stated that men and women were equal. Because women were often not well educated, they were not aware of their chance to access the legal system. 

Presidential pardon applied to women who were in prison for committing minor offences, explained the delegation. 

Turning to the application of resolution 1325, it was stated that the National Gender Policy was in place until 2025.  Every year, a budgetary line, while not large, was created for the implementation of the said resolution.

The delegation was not aware of lawyers who were threatened in Burundi.  If there were such cases, they should turn to the prosecutor’s office to file a complaint.  If the Committee had concrete names, those should be shared with the delegation. 

The ongoing crisis involved four neighbourhoods in the capital, Bujumbura, and if there was displacement, it was happening from those neighbourhoods.  There had been different waves of refugees, including those caused by the events in 1965, 1972, 1988 and 1993.

Burundi had indeed recently withdrawn from the Rome Statute, which included a clause for such a course of action.  The question had been looked at by the Parliament, which represented the Burundian people.  It was not possible to say whether the Government would engage in the dialogue with the International Criminal Court; the law had entered into force when promulgated. 

War crimes and crimes against humanity were stipulated in the Criminal Code, and were not subject to the statute of limitations. The delegation believed that the judiciary was independent, but there were shortcomings and room for improvement, including the increase of salaries.  The international community had made a choice to abandon Burundi, said the head of the delegation. 

Follow-up Questions by Experts and Replies by the Delegation

An Expert noted that Burundi continuously repeated that relevant legislation on women’s rights would be adopted, but that was simply not happening.  The question on strengthening the independence of the judiciary was reiterated. 

What was planned to be done to improve the conditions of women in prisons?  The majority of women in prisons seemed to be there because of infanticide, i.e. abortion.  Was there a plan to change the way the approach to those women?

Question was also raised on the functioning of the National Human Rights Commission.

With regard to sexual violence cases in the context of conflict, did the Government intend to collaborate with the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court? How about reparations to those women?

The delegation stated that the General Conference on Justice had reflected the will of Burundi to improve the judiciary system.  It had brought together various stakeholders from Burundian society and Burundi’s partners.  A number of changes had taken place.  There was an operational anti-corruption court in Burundi, which had issued a number of rulings on such cases.  Broad statements could not be made that the judiciary was corrupt.

Sentences for crimes of sexual nature in conflict could go up to life imprisonment, said a delegate. 
The delegation said that the existing Personal and Family Code dated back to 1993.  Some discriminatory laws did indeed exist in Burundi, but they preceded the Constitution.  Legislative changes took time and could not happen overnight, stressed the delegation and assured the Committee that the discriminatory laws would be brought in line with the Constitution.

Abortion was a criminal offence in Burundi, said the delegation.  Mind-sets of women and girls vis-à-vis contraception ought to change. 

Burundi’s prisons had been built more than 60 years earlier, which was why there was overcrowding.  A new wing for women had recently been built in the Bujumbura prison, and there was another women-only prison.  Efforts were being made to reduce the overcrowding, including through presidential pardons.

Burundi was quite proud that its Human Rights Commission was A-rated, a delegate said.          

Reparations for victims were foreseen in Burundian domestic laws, and that had nothing to do with Burundi’s withdrawal from the International Criminal Court.

Questions by Experts

An Expert asked about the National Gender Policy and the Plan of Action and to what extent they had been carried out.  How about the Action Plan on Women and resolution 1325?  There seemed to be not only technical, but also political problems, she noted.  Why were there no specific budget and priorities? Question was asked about political participation of non-governmental organizations at national and local levels?

The Expert asked about temporary special measures, which could be lifted as soon as their goals had been achieved. 

Replies by the Delegation

When it came to the equality between men and women, the political will was clearly enshrined in Burundi’s 2005 Constitution, said the head of the delegation.  The 30-percent quotas for women in institutions had been introduced that way. 

The National Gender Policy ran until 2025, and action plans on it were made on five-year bases.  The Policy was implemented on both national and local levels.  At each Ministry there was a unit in charge of gender mainstreaming.  There were four thematic working subgroups which provided a setting for exchanging opinions and looking for best practices.    UN Women and the United Nations Population Fund signed funding agreements with the Government on a yearly basis.  Other partners occasionally also contributed to the funding of certain activities.  The National Strategy to Combat Sexual and Gender-Based Violence would also be accordingly reviewed.  Civil society was involved and the Government was working with it.    

Questions by Experts

An Expert asked whether measures taken by the Government had improved the negative perception of women in Burundian society.  Negative stereotypes fed into and were impacted by the violence against women.  Changing mind-sets was a lengthy process.

There were reports of intersectional discrimination against albinos, who were sometimes exposed to very harmful practices.  Witchcraft had been used for discrimination against women throughout history.  Why was it still such a major issue in Burundi?

Question was asked on the prevalence on domestic violence against women.  To what extent was it routinized and accepted in society?

Another Expert brought up the issue of sexual violence.  There were reports of the youth wing of the ruling party massively raping women involved in anti-government protests.  What was being done to bring the perpetrators to justice?  How many cases of sexual and gender-based violence had been investigated and prosecuted since April 2015?

More information was also sought on training on sexual and gender-based violence training provided to police and judicial officers?  Women still seemed not to have sufficient confidence reporting such cases to the police.  Were there one-stop shops providing support and guidance to victims of sexual and gender-based violence?

Trafficking in human beings was an organized transnational crime, said an Expert.  Burundi appeared to be a country of origin.  What exactly was being done to prevent and combat that phenomenon?   How many rulings had been handed down, and what was being done to ensure that victims were protected?  How about awareness-raising programmes?

Prostitution in Burundi was not legal, and prostitutes could be criminalized, said the Expert.  There seemed to be certain corruption when officials facilitated travel of women and girls to other countries for the purpose of prostitution.  In order to combat HIV/AIDS, the living conditions and the health of prostitutes ought to be protected.

Replies by the Delegation

Considering figures on gender-based violence, the delegation informed that in 2015, close to 17,500 complaints of gender-based violence had been received, out of which some 14,000 had been submitted by women.  In recent years, the number of cases concerning women stood between 68 and 80 percent of all cases.  Sexual violence was now being increasingly reported, as opposed to previous years, while gender-based violence was now considered more than just violence including sexual acts. 

There was a practice in some regions that fathers-in-law had the right to have sexual intercourse with their new daughters-in-law on the first night of marriage.  That and other harmful practices were outlawed. A neighbour who did not report the case of domestic violence was as punishable as the perpetrator of domestic violence himself.

Men sometimes committed acts of gender-based violence without realizing it was wrong, which was why there was a necessity to raise awareness among both men and women.  It took a while to change the mentality, but Burundi was on the right path. 

The youth wing of the ruling party was just a political issue, said the delegation.  The youth league Imbonerakure was being demonized and stigmatized as rapists and murderers.  If anyone from that organization conducted a crime, they would be punished just as anyone else, and no special protection would be provided to them. 

It was true that some people had fled Burundi at the onset of the crisis, many because of the gossip.  There were also economic refugees, and some went to neighbouring countries in order to survive.  The United Nations Refugee Agency and the host governments were helping those refugees, who were provided support from the Government of Burundi upon their return.  Those who returned and those who stayed had to live in harmony.

On human trafficking, the delegation stated that for economic reasons some girls travelled to countries in the Arab world.  Some of the members of those trafficking networks were now behind bars.  There were currently a number of ongoing cases of girls who had left to Oman.

The delegation informed that there were two centres which provided comprehensive care package to victims of sexual and gender-based violence.  There were also two further centres which provided care, but not in such a holistic manner, and efforts were underway to improve and expand the services provided. 

Prostitution was a crime in Burundi, but if a prostitute needed care, she was cared for, as any other citizen of Burundi.           

Follow-up Questions by Experts and Replies by the Delegation

Were there any shelters for the protection of victims of human trafficking, an Expert inquired. The delegation explained that there were indeed shelters for victims of human trafficking.  Some networks had been dissolved.  A number of girls had been prevented from leaving the country based on suspicion.  It was an issue to look into further.

Even in countries where prostitution was legal, sex workers were exposed to stigmatization, noted another Expert.  When it was illegal, it became clear how exposed sex workers were to abuse and violence by both customers and police officers. The delegation responded that minor prostitutes were provided support, while others were protected at the same footing as all other citizens of the country.  A recommendation from the Committee in that regard would be appreciated.  The delegation was not aware of any prostitute being beaten by a police officer.

Question was asked about the prevalence of domestic violence. The delegation said that in Burundi, sexual and gender-based violence was mostly committed at home and could thus be considered domestic violence.    

Albinos were very much protected today, said the delegation. The Government provided full support to albinos, including health care and social protection.  It was regrettable that some of them had passed away, but they were now in shelters.  That phenomenon had come to Burundi from neighbouring countries.

The recent political report presented to the Human Rights Council was shameful and was rejected by Burundi, stressed the delegation.

Questions by Experts

An Expert noted that it was commendable that Burundi had a 30-percent quota for women’s representation.  Patriarchal political culture remained a major barrier to women’s political participation, especially in villages.  How many political parties were headed by women?  How many women from minority groups were there in the National Assembly, and how about leadership positions in Ministries occupied by women? 

Replies by the Delegation

On the question concerning the situation and representation of women in the political bodies in the country, a delegate stressed that as a woman and a member of the Senate, she was respecting her husband at home, while at work she represented her constituency and voices of women.  Women in politics in Burundi were working together to gradually eliminate discrimination against women.  The Constitution of Burundi was made up of quotas for the Parliament, the Senate and the Government; in 2014, the foundation had been broadened to include the 30 per cent quotas for representation of women in hillside community councils.  There were 44 women in the National Assembly, out of 121 members, representing 36 per cent; of the 44 women, 28 were Tutsi, three were from ethnic minority groups and 16 were Hutu.  In the Senate, 19 out of 41 members were women, of those five were Hutu, 13 were Tutsi and one was from ethnic minorities.  It was clear that Tutsi women enjoyed better political participation than Hutu women.

The 2003 Nationality Code did not allow women who married a foreigner to pass on the nationality to their children, and in that respect it discriminated against women and was not aligned with the Convention.  However, the 2005 Constitution had allowed mothers to pass on the nationality to their children. 

In the follow-up questions, the delegation was asked to clarify how a woman could effectively pass on her nationality to her foreign husband and to children born to a foreign father, to inform on birth registration of a child born to a single mother occurred, and to explain the place of international treaties in the domestic legal system.

A delegate explained that it was the 2005 Constitution which had given Burundian women and men equal nationality rights, and that was why the judiciary based its decisions concerning nationality on the Constitution.  The law stated that it was the father who recognized the child, but if the father was absent, a woman could register her child, and show her marriage certificate if she was married; single women were compelled to register the child.  All international treaties ratified by Burundi were part of its Constitution.  The Constitutional Court ensured that all laws were in line with the Constitution, and any Burundian citizen could call upon the Constitutional Court to rule on any law deemed unconstitutional.

Questions by Experts

A Committee Expert commended Burundi for measures taken to extend the duration of compulsory education of girls, the adoption of the Gender Equity Strategy in School, and for pregnancy integration policy.  However, the free compulsory education was not being enforced, resulting in lower enrolment and completion rates for girls as compared to boys.  Other issues of concern included quality of education, drop-out rates, persistent stereotypes and significant disparity between boys and girls.  Without education, and in particular education of girls, the country could not go far.

On the right to employment, the delegation was asked about the approval of the new Labour Code, social security coverage available to women in informal employment, and the implementation of the 2015 Plan to Eradicate the Worst Forms of Child Labour by 2025.

Another Expert was concerned about weak health facilities in rural areas, lack of access to contraception, and the concentration of health professionals in Bujumbura.  Other issues of concern were high levels of infant and maternal mortality, and the provision of health services to women in detention. 

Replies by the Delegation

A delegate said that the people of Burundi practiced corporal punishment and claimed that it was one of the methods to educate children.   The Ministry for Human Rights had set up a telephone hotline manned with psychologists and social workers to listen to children experiencing violence and abuse.  The hotline had been recently set up with the support of United Nations Children’s Fund, and it was currently available in Bujumbura, with plans to extend it soon in other parts of the country.

In order to facilitate pregnancy reintegration, the procedure had been put in place which facilitated return to school one year after the birth of the child, without the obligation to go through the Commission, as other children wishing to reintegrate back into school had to do.  At the age of school enrolment, there were more girls enrolled in school than boys, but the rate of progression of girls was indeed lower than for boys.  As they were getting older, more and more girls dropped out of school, for various reasons.  The budget allocated to the Ministry of Education represented 23 per cent of the state budget; in addition, a Special Fund for Education would be set up in 2017.

The draft Labour Code was quite advanced and would address all the problems pertaining to discrimination against women in employment, including salaries, but it would also take some time to agree the final text of the law between the Government, political parties and trade union representatives.  The draft law on the rights of persons with disabilities would soon be presented to the Government; the stumbling block at the moment was the matter of the right of persons with disabilities to a seat in the Parliament or the Government.  The social security coverage was five per cent, and Burundi wished to move out of social security to social protection schemes in order to ensure benefits for anyone.  The National Council for Social Protection had been set up three years earlier, and Burundi was exploring the options of transforming social benefits allocated by the Government into social protection which would help the those people in vulnerable situations build themselves up.

The national reproductive health programme sought to raise awareness about family planning and to support access to sexual and reproductive health services.  Abortion was illegal, including for pregnancies resulting from rape; only therapeutic abortion was permitted.

Questions by Experts

In the next round of questions, the delegation was asked to explain how gender equality was mainstreamed in the national anti-poverty strategy, whether the funds were being used for high-level economic empowerment of women or just for mere survival, and to explain why loans for women were decreasing.

The delegation was further asked specific questions concerning vulnerable groups of women, including the specific policies to protect Batwa women as indigenous people, whether alternative measures to detention were being considered for women in detention who had small children, and about the obligation of refugee women to pay for child delivery services.

Replies by the Delegation

With the support of a number of partners, the Government had set up the Guarantee Fund to facilitate access of low-income women to micro-loans; the Fund operated in eight out of 18 provinces.  The budget line for empowerment of women had been created in the state budget, which was an expression of the Government’s will to address the issue. 

The Batwa used to be nomadic, but were now sedentary and the Government was looking into ways to allocate them the land, register their children and wives, which was not often the case.  Women in detention were often at the top of the list of persons for Presidential pardon in order to reduce the number of children in prisons; however, there were some crimes which could not be pardoned.  Burundi was aware that there were still small children in prisons and was hoping that one day that problem would be resolved.

In the follow-up questions and comments, Experts urged Burundi to abolish corporal punishment in schools as it sent a strong message that violence was acceptable; to consider the best interest of the girl in the reintegration into school after pregnancy; and to reconsider the position on abortion as it was clear that the prohibition did not work: the population was growing at an alarming rate, 50 per cent of abortions were backstreet abortions, and 25 per cent of girls engaging in sex between ages of 16 and 18 would experience an unwanted pregnancy.  Burundi had to respect its girls.

The delegation said that the Personal and Family Code prohibited marriage before the age of 18 with the exception of special authorisation by the provincial governor.  As there was no centralised birth registration system, it was not easy to prove the age of persons being married.  Burundi was not yet ready to decriminalize abortion.

Questions by Experts

An Expert said that the recent adoption of the Law on Sexual and Gender-based Violence would facilitate the revision of the Personal and Family Code.  There was a need to ensure the protection of rights of women living in common marriages or free unions, and their children, in case of dissolution. 

Replies by the Delegation

Responding, a delegate said that periodic campaigns were organized to urge people to register common marriages with the civil status offices, and following that to also register children born in the common marriage.  Frequently, men would abandon their wives and children, to again marry under common or customary law; that practice was now prohibited by the new law on gender-based violence.

Concluding Remarks

ELISA NKERABIRORI, Assistant to the Minister of Human Rights, Social Affairs and Gender, said that the issue of women was a priority for the Government of Burundi and that Burundi would keep the Committee appraised on the progress made.

YOKO HAYASHI, Committee Chairperson, commended Burundi for its efforts and encouraged it to address various recommendations which the Committee would issue with the purpose of more comprehensive implementation of the Convention throughout the State party.