Advocating for children’s rights in Burundi

Last April 2016, I arrived in Burundi to serve as a Communication Officer with UNICEF, with a very clear mission: to advocate for the rights of Burundi’s children through the power of storytelling and digital communications.

When I landed for the first time at the international airport in Bujumbura, I realized the situation in the country was highly volatile. Heavily armed policemen and military ‘welcomed’ my arrival to the capital of Burundi.

One morning, after just seven days in the country, I heard gunfire in the streets not far from my home. It was a bit scary. I fully understood the difficult and challenging context for the children, women, and all people of Burundi who are exposed to violence, malnutrition, disease and lack of opportunities, among other challenges.

Since the onset of the political crisis in Burundi in April 2015, political violence has led to an increasingly fragile environment for children, with regular reports of child rights violations, including injuries, deaths and detentions. More than 108,000 internally displaced people and more than 300,000 refugees (54.6 per cent children) have left their homes in search of safety.

Two small children, one sitting on a woman's lap, the other standing, holding a packet of biscuits
© UNICEF Burundi/2016/J.Haro77,000 is the number of people living with HIV in 2015, of which 9,100 are children. Despite efforts against this virus, national HIV prevalence among adults remains 1.3%.

It was in these circumstances that I met someone I will never forget. His name is Aimable. He is an 11-year-old boy who had lived in the streets of Bujumbura for seven years, seeing things a child should never see. During the interview, he shared with us the hardship of the days he spent living in the street with his brother, and the time he saw a dead body. Fortunately, and thanks to the support of UNICEF and partners, now he is back in school and reunited with his family.

His story had to come out. We featured him in a video story, and people around the world talked about the children of Burundi. I received messages from colleagues asking how to help and showing their concern about the reality that Burundian children like Aimable face, to survive in a place where it was already difficult to be a child, even before the political crisis broke out.

During another field mission inside the country, I visited a health center to collect testimonies and photos from mothers and children who are HIV positive – as one of our goals as UNICEF Burundi is to end all transmission of HIV from mothers to their babies.

As a journalist by training, I know to always prepare an interview in advance, but this time, faced with such personal and sensitive stories, my questions needed to be reformulated. The lesson of courage and resilience I learned from these mothers and their children made me feel very small and quite ignorant. That day, I absorbed what it means to fight the difficulties that life hides and how to face the future with determination.

A child lies on a hospital bed, with a tube in the foreground. A man and a woman look into the room through a window.
© UNICEF Burundi/2016/J.Haro3.1 million children under the age of five die every year because of malnutrition. Burundi has one of the highest malnutrition rates in the world.

In the face of an uncertain situation, UNICEF has enhanced its humanitarian response to meet the increasing needs of Burundian children. Our top priorities now are advocating for an end to child rights violations, a safe learning environment for every child, and uninterrupted health and nutrition services in a context where families are getting poorer and having a hard time adequately feeding their kids. Inside the UNICEF country office in Burundi, it is very inspiring to see how international and national staff work together to ensure that the organization continues to promote the rights and well-being of all children.

Stories to improve children’s lives

Did you know that 8 out of 10 Burundians live on less than US $1.25 per day? Or that Burundi is among the world’s hungriest countries, with 3 in 5 children suffering from stunted growth? A big part of our job in Burundi – a country often overlooked or forgotten – is to simply raise awareness of this.

Digital communications and multimedia storytelling have proven to be instrumental in raising this awareness. In my role, I tell and photograph human stories. I look for the testimonies that happen here daily to increase public interest and drive support for vulnerable children in Burundi – with the ultimate objective of improving their lives through our advocacy.

Man and woman stand together, smiling for the camera; he is much taller and so squats down a bit
© UNICEF Burundi/2016/Y.NijimbereLydia Kwizera, seen here with the author, is one the most active and inspiring members of the Child Journalists Program, which trains child journalists from Burundi in the promotion of children’s rights, opening spaces and platforms to express themselves.

It’s been more than eight months since my arrival, and I already feel so attached to this country, to its families and, in particular, to Burundian youth. Burundian children not only represent more than half of the national population, they are the key to restoring peace, for the future of this country and its millions of children. And I want to witness peace and a safe future for children in Burundi.

Juan Haro is a Communication Officer with UNICEF Burundi.

Find out more about UNICEF Burundi at www.facebook.com/UNICEFBurundi.

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